North now offers Focals smart glasses fittings and purchases via app

North’s Focals smart glasses are the first in the category to even approach mainstream appeal, but to date, the only way to get a pair has been to go into a physical North showroom and get a custom fitting, and then return once they’re ready for a pick-up and final adjustment. Now, North has released its Showroom app, which makes Focals available across the U.S. and Canada without an in-person appointment.

This approach reduces considerable friction, and it’s able to do so thanks to technology available on board the iPhone X or later – essentially the same tech that makes Face ID possible. People can go through the sizing and fitting process using these later model iPhones (and you can borrow a friend’s if you’re on Android or an older iOS device) and then North takes those measurements and can produce either prescription or non-prescription Focals, shipped directly to your door after a few weeks.

The Showroom app also includes an AR-powered virtual try-on feature for making sure you like the look of the frames, and for picking out your favorite color. Once the Focals show up at your door, the final fitting process is also something you can do at home, guided by the app’s directions for getting the fit just right.

Should you still want to hit an actual physical showroom, North’s still going to be operating its Brooklyn and Toronto storefronts, and will be operating pop-ups across North America as well.

Focals began shipping earlier this year, bringing practical smart notification, guidance and other software experiences to your field of view via a tiny projector and in-lens transparent display. North, which previously existed as Thalmic Labs and created the Myo gesture control armband, recognized that they were building control devices optimized for exactly this kind of application, but also found that no one was yet getting wearable tech like smart glasses right. Last year, Thalmic Labs pivoted to become North and focus on Focals as a result.

Since launching its smart glasses to consumers, it’s been iterating the software to consistently add new features, and making them more accessible to customers. An early price drop significantly lessened sticker shock, and now removing the requirement to actually visit a location in person to both order and collect the glasses should help expand their customer base further still.

I hope Apple Arcade makes room for weird cool shit

Apple Arcade seems purpose built to make room in the market for beautiful, sad, weird, moving, slow, clever and heartfelt. All things that the action, shooter and MOBA driven major market of games has done nothing to foster over the last decade.

I had a chance to play a bunch of the titles coming to Apple Arcade, which launched today in a surprise move for some early testers of iOS 13. Nearly every game I played was fun, all were gorgeous and some were really really great.

A few I really enjoyed, in no particular order:

20190524 WCF GameplayScreenshot wcf screenShot mcFishShakeJump 1080

Where Cards Fall — A Snowman game from Sam Rosenthal. A beautiful game with a clever card-based mechanic that allows room for story moments and a ramping difficulty level that should be fantastic for short play sessions. Shades of Monument Valley, of course, in its puzzle + story interleave and it its willingness to get super emotional about things right away. More of this in gaming! Super satisfying gameplay and crisp animations abound.

20190729 Overland GameplayScreenshot 09 Basin

Overland — Finji — Overland is one of my most anticipated games from the bunch, I’ve been following the development of this game from the Night in the Woods and Canabalt creators for a long time. It does not disappoint, with a stylized but somehow hyper-realized post apocalyptic turn-based system that transmits urgency through economy of movement. Every act you take counts. Given that it’s a rogue like, the story is told through the world rather than through an individual character’s narrative and the world does a great job of it.

20190517 Oceanhorn2 Oceanhorn2 Screenshot 7

Oceanhorn 2 — Cornfox & Brothers — The closest to a native Zelda you’ll get on iOS — this plays great on a controller. Do yourself a favor and try it that way.

20190712 Spek GameplayScreenshot Spek Screen C 3

Spek — RAC7 — One of those puzzle games people will plow through, it makes the mechanics simple to understand then begins to really push and prod at your mastery of them over time. The AR component of the app seems like it will be a better party game than solo experience, but the effects used here are great and it really plays with distance and perspective in a way that an AR game should. A good totem for the genre going forward.

I was able to play several of the games across all three platforms including Apple TV with an Xbox controller, iPhone and iPad. While some favored controller (Skate City) and others touch controls (Super Impossible Road), all felt like I could play them either way without much difficulty.

There are also some surprises in the initial batch of games like Lego Brawls — a Smash Brothers clone that will be a big hit for car rides and get togethers I think.

My hope is that the Apple Arcade advantage, an agressive $4.99 price and prime placement in the App Store, may help to create an umbrella of sorts for games that don’t fit the ‘big opening weekend’ revenue mold and I hope Apple leans into that. I know that there may be action-oriented and big name titles in the package now and in the future, and that’s fine. But there are many kinds of games out there that are fantastic but “minor” in the grand scheme of things and having a place that could create sustainability in the market for these gems is a great thing.

The financial terms were not disclosed by Apple but many of the developers appear to have gotten up front money to make games for the platform and, doubtless, there is a rev share on some sort of basis, probably usage or installs. Whatever it is, I hope the focus is on sustainability, but the people responsible for Arcade inside Apple are making all the right noises about that so I have hopes.

I am especially glad that Apple is being aggressive with the pricing and with the restrictions it has set for the store, including no in-app purchases or ads. This creates an environment where a parent (ratings permitting) can be confident that a kid playing games from the Arcade tab will not be besieged with casino ads in the middle of their puzzle game.

There is, however, a general irony in the fact that Apple had to create Apple Arcade because of the proliferation of loot box/currency/in-app purchase revenue models. An economy driven by the App Store’s overall depressive effect on the price of games and the decade long acclimation people have had to spending less and less, down to free, for games and apps on the store.

By bundling them into a subscription, Apple sidesteps the individual purchase barrier that it has had a big hand in creating in the first place. While I don’t think it is fully to blame — plenty of other platforms aggressively promote loot box mechanics — a big chunk of the responsibility to fix this distortion does rest on Apple. Apple Arcade is a great stab at that and I hope that the early titles are an indicator of the overall variety and quality that we can expect.

Get popcorn for iOS 13’s privacy pop-ups of creepy Facebook data grabs

Privacy-minded changes to smartphone operating systems which foreground the background activity of third party apps are helping to spotlight more of the surveillance infrastructure deployed by adtech giants to track and profile human eyeballs for profit.

To wit: iOS 13, which will be generally released later this week, has already been spotted catching Facebook’s app trying to use Bluetooth to track nearby users.

facebook BT

Why might Facebook want to do this? Matching Bluetooth (and wif-fi) IDs that share physical location could allow it to supplement the social graph it gleans by data-mining user-to-user activity on its platform.

Such location tracking provides a physical confirm that individuals were (at very least) in close proximity.

Combined with personal data Facebook also holds on people, and contextual data on the nature of the location itself — a bar, say, or a house — there’s a clear path for the company to make inferences about the nature of the relationship between the people who it’s repurposed short range wireless tech to determine are in close contact.

For a company that makes money by serving targeted ads at humans there are clear commercial reasons for Facebook to seek to intimately understand people’s friend networks.

Facebook piggybacking on people’s use of Bluetooth for benign purposes like pairing devices so that its ad business can ‘pair’ people is the sneaky modus operandi that iOS 13 has caught in the act here.

Ads are Facebook’s business, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously told the senate last year. But it’s worth noting the social network giant recently sought to push into the dating space — giving it a fresh, product-based incentive to pry into where and with whom humans are spending their time.

Algorithmic matchmaking based on cold signals like shared interests (in basic Facebook currency this might mean stuff like liking the same pages and events) is of course nothing new.

Yet mix in hot-blooded signals gathered by watching who actually mingles with whom, where and when — by repurposing Bluetooth to harvest interpersonal interactions via tracking people’s physical movements — and Facebook can take its curtain-twitching surveillance of human behavior to the next level.

The path of least resistance to tracking people’s movements is if Facebook app users are opting in to location tracking on their devices. Which means users enabling Location Services — a location tracking feature on smartphones that covers GPS, Bluetooth and crowd-sources wi-fi hotspots and mobile cell towers.

Unsurprisingly, then Facebook Dating requires Location Services to be enabled to function. The company confirmed to us that the Facebook app prompts dating users to enable Location Services if they haven’t already. Facebook also told us it doesn’t use wi-fi or Bluetooth to determine a person’s precise location if a user has Location Services turned off.

It also made a point of emphasizing that users can switch Location Services off at any time. Just not if they wish to use, er, Facebook Dating…

As per usual the company is tangling separate purposes for data processing in a way that denies people a meaningful choice over protecting their privacy. Hence Facebook dating users get to ‘choose’ between being able to use the service; or being able to blanket-deny Facebook the ability to track their physical movements. Like it or lump it.

iOS 13’s new privacy pop-ups to call out background app activity are a clear response to such disingenuous methods by an industry Apple CEO Tim Cook has dubbed the data industrial complex — putting a degree of control back in the hands of the user, who gets a third choice of manually disallowing Bluetooth proximity tracking (in the above example).

Android 10 has also recently expanded the location tracking controls it offers users — with the ability to only share location data with apps while you use them. Though Google’s OS lags far behind what Apple is now offering with these granular pop-ups.

Facebook has responded to awkward (for it) privacy changes incoming at the smartphone OS level by putting out an update on location services last week — where it seeks to get ahead of the deluge of data-grab warnings that iOS users of the Facebook app are likely to experience as they update to iOS 13.

Here it tries to spin Apple’s pro-active foregrounding of apps’ background tracking tactics via push notifications as “reminders” — in just one amusing rebrand.

But in a truly shameless contradiction Facebook also goes on to claim that: “You’re in control of who sees your location on Facebook” (because it says users can make use of the Location Services setting on a phone or tablet to deny tracking) — before admitting that switching off Location Services doesn’t actually mean Facebook will not track your location.

Just because you’re signalling very clearly to Facebook that you don’t want your location to be collected by Facebook doesn’t mean Facebook is going to respect that. Hell no!

“We may still understand your location using things like check-ins, events and information about your internet connection,” it writes. (For a clearer understanding of Facebook’s use of the word “understand” in that sentence we suggest you try substituting the word “steal”.)

In a final shameless kicker — in which Facebook almost appears to be trying to claim credit for smartphone OSes building more privacy features in response to its data grabs — the company seeks to finish on a forward-gazing note, per its preferred crisis PR custom, writing: “We’ll continue to make it easier for you to control how and when you share your location.”

Facebook dishing out misleading qualifications (e.g. “easier”) that whitewash the extent of its rampant data grabs is nothing new. But how much longer it can hope to rely on such flimsy figleaves to cover its privacy sins as the winds of change come rattling through remains to be seen…

Get popcorn for iOS 13’s privacy pop-ups of creepy Facebook data grabs

Privacy-minded changes to smartphone operating systems which foreground the background activity of third party apps are helping to spotlight more of the surveillance infrastructure deployed by adtech giants to track and profile human eyeballs for profit.

To wit: iOS 13, which will be generally released later this week, has already been spotted catching Facebook’s app trying to use Bluetooth to track nearby users.

facebook BT

Why might Facebook want to do this? Matching Bluetooth (and wif-fi) IDs that share physical location could allow it to supplement the social graph it gleans by data-mining user-to-user activity on its platform.

Such location tracking provides a physical confirm that individuals were (at very least) in close proximity.

Combined with personal data Facebook also holds on people, and contextual data on the nature of the location itself — a bar, say, or a house — there’s a clear path for the company to make inferences about the nature of the relationship between the people who it’s repurposed short range wireless tech to determine are in close contact.

For a company that makes money by serving targeted ads at humans there are clear commercial reasons for Facebook to seek to intimately understand people’s friend networks.

Facebook piggybacking on people’s use of Bluetooth for benign purposes like pairing devices so that its ad business can ‘pair’ people is the sneaky modus operandi that iOS 13 has caught in the act here.

Ads are Facebook’s business, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously told the senate last year. But it’s worth noting the social network giant recently sought to push into the dating space — giving it a fresh, product-based incentive to pry into where and with whom humans are spending their time.

Algorithmic matchmaking based on cold signals like shared interests (in basic Facebook currency this might mean stuff like liking the same pages and events) is of course nothing new.

Yet mix in hot-blooded signals gathered by watching who actually mingles with whom, where and when — by repurposing Bluetooth to harvest interpersonal interactions via tracking people’s physical movements — and Facebook can take its curtain-twitching surveillance of human behavior to the next level.

The path of least resistance to tracking people’s movements is if Facebook app users are opting in to location tracking on their devices. Which means users enabling Location Services — a location tracking feature on smartphones that covers GPS, Bluetooth and crowd-sources wi-fi hotspots and mobile cell towers.

Unsurprisingly, then Facebook Dating requires Location Services to be enabled to function. The company confirmed to us that the Facebook app prompts dating users to enable Location Services if they haven’t already. Facebook also told us it doesn’t use wi-fi or Bluetooth to determine a person’s precise location if a user has Location Services turned off.

It also made a point of emphasizing that users can switch Location Services off at any time. Just not if they wish to use, er, Facebook Dating…

As per usual the company is tangling separate purposes for data processing in a way that denies people a meaningful choice over protecting their privacy. Hence Facebook dating users get to ‘choose’ between being able to use the service; or being able to blanket-deny Facebook the ability to track their physical movements. Like it or lump it.

iOS 13’s new privacy pop-ups to call out background app activity are a clear response to such disingenuous methods by an industry Apple CEO Tim Cook has dubbed the data industrial complex — putting a degree of control back in the hands of the user, who gets a third choice of manually disallowing Bluetooth proximity tracking (in the above example).

Android 10 has also recently expanded the location tracking controls it offers users — with the ability to only share location data with apps while you use them. Though Google’s OS lags far behind what Apple is now offering with these granular pop-ups.

Facebook has responded to awkward (for it) privacy changes incoming at the smartphone OS level by putting out an update on location services last week — where it seeks to get ahead of the deluge of data-grab warnings that iOS users of the Facebook app are likely to experience as they update to iOS 13.

Here it tries to spin Apple’s pro-active foregrounding of apps’ background tracking tactics via push notifications as “reminders” — in just one amusing rebrand.

But in a truly shameless contradiction Facebook also goes on to claim that: “You’re in control of who sees your location on Facebook” (because it says users can make use of the Location Services setting on a phone or tablet to deny tracking) — before admitting that switching off Location Services doesn’t actually mean Facebook will not track your location.

Just because you’re signalling very clearly to Facebook that you don’t want your location to be collected by Facebook doesn’t mean Facebook is going to respect that. Hell no!

“We may still understand your location using things like check-ins, events and information about your internet connection,” it writes. (For a clearer understanding of Facebook’s use of the word “understand” in that sentence we suggest you try substituting the word “steal”.)

In a final shameless kicker — in which Facebook almost appears to be trying to claim credit for smartphone OSes building more privacy features in response to its data grabs — the company seeks to finish on a forward-gazing note, per its preferred crisis PR custom, writing: “We’ll continue to make it easier for you to control how and when you share your location.”

Facebook dishing out misleading qualifications (e.g. “easier”) that whitewash the extent of its rampant data grabs is nothing new. But how much longer it can hope to rely on such flimsy figleaves to cover its privacy sins as the winds of change come rattling through remains to be seen…

Apple tweaks App Store rule changes for children’s apps and sign in services

Originally announced in June, changes to Apple’s App Store policies on its Sign in with Apple service and the rules around children’s app categories are being tweaked. New apps must comply right away with the tweaked terms, but existing apps will have until early 2020 to comply with the new rules.

The changes announced at Apple’s developer conference in the summer were significant, and raised concerns among developers that the rules could handicap their ability to do business in a universe that, frankly, offers tough alternatives to ad-based revenue for children’s apps.

In a short interview with TechCrunch, Apple’s Phil Schiller said that they had spent time with developers, analytics companies and advertising services to hear what they had to say about the proposals and have made some updates.

The changes are garnering some strong statements of support from advocacy groups and advertising providers for children’s apps that were pre-briefed on the tweaks. The changes will show up as of this morning in Apple’s developer guidelines.

“As we got closer to implementation we spent more time with developers, analytics companies and advertising companies,” said Schiller. “Some of them are really forward thinking and have good ideas and are trying to be leaders in this space too.”

With their feedback, Schiller said, they’ve updated the guidelines to allow them to be more applicable to a broader number of scenarios. The goal, he said, was to make the guidelines easy enough for developers to adopt while being supportive of sensible policies that parents could buy into. These additional guidelines, especially around the Kids app category, says Schiller, outline scenarios that may not be addressed by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) or GDPR regulations.

There are two main updates.

Kids changes

The first area that is getting further tweaking is the Kids terms. Rule sections 1.3 and 5.1.4 specifically are being adjusted after Apple spoke with developers and providers of ad and analytics services about their concerns over the past few months.

Both of those rules are being updated to add more nuance to their language around third-party services like ads and analytics. In June, Apple announced a very hard-line version of these rule updates that essentially outlawed any third-party ads or analytics software and prohibited any data transmission to third-parties. The new rules offer some opportunities for developers to continue to integrate these into their apps, but also sets out explicit constraints for them.

The big changes come in section 1.3 surrounding data safety in the Kids category. Apple has removed the explicit restriction on including any third-party advertising or analytics. This was the huge hammer that developers saw heading towards their business models.

Instead, Apple has laid out a much more nuanced proposal for app developers. Specifically, it says these apps should not include analytics or ads from third parties, which implicitly acknowledging that there are ways to provide these services while also practicing data safety on the App Store.

Apple says that in limited cases, third-party analytics may be permitted as long as apps in the Kids category do not send personal identifiable information or any device fingerprinting information to third parties. This includes transmitting the IDFA (the device ID for advertisers), name, date of birth, email address, location or any other personally identifiable information.

Third-party contextual ads may be allowed but only if those companies providing the ads have publicly documented practices and policies and also offer human review of ad creatives. That certainly limits the options, including most offerings from programmatic services.

Rule 5.1.4 centers on data handling in kids apps. In addition to complying with COPPA, GDPR and other local regulations, Apple sets out some explicit guard rails.

First, the language on third-party ads and analytics has been changed from may not to should not. Apple is discouraging their use, but acknowledges that “in limited cases” third-party analytics and advertising may be permitted if it adheres to the new rules set out in guideline 1.3.

The explicit prohibition on transmitting any data to third parties from apps in the Kids category has been removed. Once again, this was the big bad bullet that every children’s app maker was paying attention to.

An additional clause reminds developers not to use terms like “for kids” and “for children” in app metadata for apps outside of the Kids category on the App Store.

SuperAwesome is a company that provides services like safe ad serving to kids apps. CEO Dylan Collins was initially critical of Apple’s proposed changes, noting that killing off all third-party apps could decimate the kids app category.

“Apple are clearly very serious about setting the standard for kids apps and digital services,” Collins said in a statement to TechCrunch after reviewing the new rules Apple is publishing. “They’ve spent a lot of time working with developers and kidtech providers to ensure that policies and tools are set to create great kids digital experiences while also ensuring their digital privacy and safety. This is the model for all other technology platforms to follow.”

All new apps must adhere to the guidelines. Existing apps have been given an additional six months to live in their current form but must comply by March 3, 2020.

“We commend Apple for taking real steps to protect children’s privacy and ensure that kids will not be targets for data-driven, personalized marketing,” said Josh Golin, Executive Director of Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood. “Apple rightly recognizes that a child’s personal identifiable information should never be shared with marketers or other third parties. We also appreciate that Apple made these changes on its own accord, without being dragged to the table by regulators.”

The CCFC had a major win recently when the FTC announced a $170M fine against YouTube for violations of COPPA.

Sign in with Apple

The second set of updates has to do with Apple’s Sign in with Apple service.

Sign in with Apple is a sign-in service that can be offered by an app developer to instantly create an account that is handled by Apple with additional privacy for the user. We’ve gone over the offering extensively here, but there are some clarifications and policy additions in the new guidelines.

Sign in with Apple is being required to be offered by Apple if your app exclusively offers third-party or social log ins like those from Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Amazon or Facebook. It is not required if users sign in with a unique account created in the app, with say an email and password.

But some additional clarifications have been added for additional scenarios. Sign in with Apple will not be required in the following conditions:

  • Your app exclusively uses your company’s own account setup and sign-in systems.
  • Your app is an education, enterprise or business app that requires the user to sign in with an existing education or enterprise account.
  • Your app uses a government or industry-backed citizen identification system or electronic ID to authenticate users.
  • Your app is a client for specific third-party service and users are required to sign in to their mail, social media or other third-party account directly to access their content.

Most of these were sort of assumed to be true but were not initially clear in June. The last one, especially, was one that I was interested in seeing play out. This scenario applies to, for instance, the Gmail app for iOS, as well as apps like Tweetbot, which log in via Twitter because all they do is display Twitter.

Starting today, new apps submitted to the store that don’t meet any of the above requirements must offer Sign in with Apple to users. Current apps and app updates have until April 2020 to comply.

Both of these tweaks come after developers and other app makers expressed concern and reports noted the abruptness and strictness of the changes in the context of the ever-swirling anti-trust debate surrounding big tech. Apple continues to walk a tightrope with the App Store where they flex muscles in an effort to enhance data protections for users while simultaneously trying to appear as egalitarian as possible in order to avoid regulatory scrutiny.

iOS 13 will be available on September 19

Apple announced in a press release that iOS 13 will be available on September 19. Even if you don’t plan to buy a new iPhone, you’ll be able to get a bunch of new features.

But that’s not all. iOS 13.1 will be available on September 30. Apple had to remove some features of iOS 13.0 at the last minute as they weren’t stable enough, such as Shortcuts automations and the ability to share your ETA in Apple Maps. That’s why iOS 13.1 will be released shortly after iOS 13.

As always, iOS 13 will be available as a free download. If you have an iPhone 6s or later, an iPhone SE or a 7th-generation iPod touch, your device supports iOS 13.

In addition, watchOS 6 will be released on September 19. Unfortunately, Apple will release iPadOS 13 on September 30. And it looks like tvOS 13 will also be released on September 30, according to a separate press release.

Here’s a quick rundown of what’s new in iOS 13. This year, in addition to dark mode, it feels like every single app has been improved with some quality-of-life updates. The Photos app features a brand new gallery view with autoplaying live photos and videos, smart curation and a more immersive design.

This version has a big emphasis on privacy, as well, thanks to a new signup option called “Sign in with Apple” and a bunch of privacy popups for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi consent. Apple Maps now features an impressive Google Street View-like feature called Look Around. It’s only available in a handful of cities, but I recommend… looking around, as everything is in 3D.

Many apps have been updated, such as Reminders with a brand new version, Messages with the ability to set a profile picture shared with your contacts, Mail with better text formatting options, Health with menstrual cycle tracking, Files with desktop-like features, Safari with a new website settings menu, etc. Read more on iOS 13 in my separate preview.

On the iPad front, for the first time Apple is calling iOS for the iPad under a new name — iPadOS. Multitasking has been improved, the Apple Pencil should feel snappier, Safari is now as powerful as Safari on macOS and more.

Watch Apple unveil the new iPhone live right here

Apple is set to announce new iPhone models today. The company is holding a keynote on its campus at 10 AM PT (1 PM in New York, 6 PM in London, 7 PM in Paris). And you’ll be able to watch the event right here as the company is streaming it live.

Rumor has it that the company plans to unveil three new smartphones. The iPhone 11 should replace the iPhone XR in the lineup, while the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max should replace the iPhone XS and XS Max respectively.

Apple could also update the Apple Watch with a new titanium version. You can also expect to get the release date of iOS 13, iPadOS 13, tvOS 13, macOS Catalina and watchOS 6. Let’s see if Apple announces the launch dates of Apple TV+ and Apple Arcade as well.

When it comes to less likely announcements that could still happen, Apple has been working on new MacBooks, a new Apple TV with a more powerful system-on-a-chip and new iPads. All eyes are on the new iPhone, but Apple could use today’s conference to announce those other products.

You can watch the live stream directly on this page. For the first time, Apple is streaming its conference on YouTube.

If you have an Apple TV, you can download the Apple Events app in the App Store. It lets you stream today’s event and rewatch old ones. The app icon was updated a few days ago for the event.

And if you don’t have an Apple TV and don’t want to use YouTube, the company also lets you live-stream the event from the Apple Events section on its website. This video feed now works in all major browsers — Safari, Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.

Of course, you also can read TechCrunch’s live blog if you’re stuck at work and really need our entertaining commentary track to help you get through your day. We have a team in the room.

Apple tweaks its App Store algorithm as antitrust investigations loom

That Apple has used its App Store to offer itself a competitive advantage is nothing new. TechCrunch and others have been reporting on this problem for years, including those times when Apple chose to display its apps in the No. 1 position on the Top Charts, for example, or when it stole some of the App Store’s best ideas for its own, banned apps that competed with iOS features, or positioned its apps higher than competitors in search. Now, in the wake of antitrust investigations in the U.S. and abroad as well as various anticompetitive lawsuits, Apple has adjusted the App Store’s algorithm so fewer of its own apps would appear at the top of the search results.

The change was reported by The New York Times on Monday, who presented Apple with a lengthy analysis of app rankings.

It even found that some searches for various terms would display as many as 14 Apple-owned apps before showing any results from rivals. Competitors could only rank higher if they paid for an App Store search ad, the report noted.

That’s a bad look for Apple which has recently been trying to distance itself and its App Store from any anti-competitive accusations.

In May, for example, Apple launched a new App Store website designed to demonstrate how it welcomes competition from third-party apps. The site showed that for every Apple built-in app, there were competitors available throughout the App Store.

But availability in the store and discoverability by consumers are two different things.

Apple admitted to The NYT that for over a year many common searches on the App Store would return Apple’s own apps, even when the Apple apps were less popular or relevant at times. The company explained the algorithm wasn’t manipulated to do so. For the most part, Apple said its own apps ranked higher because they’re more popular and because they come up in search results for many common terms. The company additionally said that one feature of the app’s algorithm would sometimes group apps by their maker, which gave Apple’s own apps better rankings than expected.

Screen Shot 2019 09 09 at 11.29.20 AM

Above: via The NYT, the average number of Apple apps that returned at the top of the search results by month

Apple said it adjusted the algorithm in July to make it seem like Apple’s own apps weren’t receiving special treatment. According to the NYT, both Apple VP Philip Schiller, who oversees the App Store, and SVP Eddy Cue, who oversees many of Apple’s apps, confirmed that these changes have not fully fixed the problem.

The issue, as Apple explains it, is that its own apps are so popular that it had to tweak its algorithm to pretend they are not. Whether or not this is true can’t be independently verified, however, as Apple doesn’t allow any visibility into metrics like searches, downloads, or active users.

Maybe it’s time for Apple’s apps to exit the App Store?

The report, along with the supposed ineffectiveness of the algorithm’s changes, begs the question as to whether Apple’s apps should show up in the App Store’s charts and search results at all, and if so, how.

To be fair, this is a question that’s not limited to Apple. Google today is facing the same problem. Recently, the CEO of a popular software program, Basecamp, called Google’s paid search ads a “shakedown,” arguing that the only way his otherwise No. 1 search result can rank at the top of the search results page is to buy an ad. Meanwhile, his competitors can do so — even using his brand name as the keyword to bid against.

The same holds true for the App Store, but on a smaller scale than the entirety of the web. That also makes Apple’s problem easier to solve.

For example, Apple could simply choose to offer a dedicated section for its own software downloads, and leave the App Store as the home for third-party software alone.

This sort of change could help to eliminate concerns over Apple’s anti-competitive behavior in the search results and chart rankings. Apple might balk against this solution, saying that users should have an easy way to locate and download its own apps, and the App Store is the place to do that. But the actual marketplace itself could be left to the third-party software while the larger App Store app — which today includes a variety of app-related content including app reviews, interviews with developers, app tips, and a subscription gaming service, Apple Arcade — could still be used to showcase Apple-produced software.

It could just do so outside the actual marketplace.

Here’s how this could work. If users wanted to re-install an Apple app they had deleted or download one that didn’t come pre-installed on their device, they could be directed to a special Apple software download page. Pointers to this page could be in the App Store app itself as well as in the iOS Settings.

An ideal spot for this section could even be on the existing Search page of the App Store.

With a redesign, Apple could offer a modified search screen where users could optionally check a box to return a list of apps results that would come only from Apple. This would indicate intentional behavior on the consumer’s part. That is, they are directly seeking an Apple software download — as opposed to the current situation where a user searches for “Music” and sees Apple’s own music app appear above all the others from rivals, like Spotify and Pandora.

Alternately, Apple could just list its own apps on this page or offer a link to this dedicated page from the search screen.

And these are just a few variations on a single idea. There are plenty of other ways the App Store could be adjusted to be less anti-competitive, too.

As another example, Apple could also include the “You Might Also Like” section in its own apps’ App Store listings, as it does for all third-party apps.

Image from iOS 1Above: Apple Music’s App Store Listing

This section directs users to other apps that match the same search query right within the app’s detail page. Apple’s own apps, however, only include a “More by Apple” section. That means its keeping all the search traffic and consumer interest for itself.

Image from iOS

Above: Spotify’s App Store Listing

Or it could reduce the screen space dedicated to its own apps in the search results — even if they rank higher — in order to give more attention to apps from competitors while still being able to cater to users who were truly in search of Apple’s software.

But ultimately, how Apple will have to behave with regard to its App Store may be left to the regulators to decide, given Apple’s failure to bake this sort of anti-competitive thinking into its App Store design.

 

Malicious websites were used to secretly hack into iPhones for years, says Google

Security researchers at Google say they’ve found a number of malicious websites which, when visited, could quietly hack into a victim’s iPhone by exploiting a set of previously undisclosed software flaws.

Google’s Project Zero said in a deep-dive blog post published late on Thursday that the websites were visited thousands of times per week by unsuspecting victims, in what they described as an “indiscriminate” attack.

“Simply visiting the hacked site was enough for the exploit server to attack your device, and if it was successful, install a monitoring implant,” said Ian Beer, a security researcher at Project Zero.

He said the websites had been hacking iPhones over a “period of at least two years.”

The researchers found five distinct exploit chains involving 12 separate security flaws, including seven involving Safari, the in-built web browser on iPhones. The five separate attack chains allowed an attacker to gain “root” access to the device — the highest level of access and privilege on an iPhone. In doing so, an attacker could gain access to the device’s full range of features normally off-limits to the user. That means an attacker could quietly install malicious apps to spy on an iPhone owner without their knowledge or consent.

Google said based off their analysis, the vulnerabilities were used to steal a user’s photos and messages as well as track their location in near-realtime. The “implant” could also access the user’s on-device bank of saved passwords.

The vulnerabilities affect iOS 10 through to the current iOS 12 software version.

Google privately disclosed the vulnerabilities in February, giving Apple only a week to fix the flaws and roll out updates to its users. That’s a fraction of the 90 days typically given to software developers, giving an indication of the severity of the vulnerabilities.

Apple issued a fix six days later with iOS 12.1.4 for iPhone 5s and iPad Air and later.

Beer said it’s possible other hacking campaigns are currently in action.

The iPhone and iPad maker in general has a good rap on security and privacy matters. Recently the company increased its maximum bug bounty payout to $1 million for security researchers who find flaws that can silently target an iPhone and gain root-level privileges without any user interaction. Under Apple’s new bounty rules — set to go into effect later this year — Google would’ve been eligible for several million dollars in bounties.

A spokesperson for Apple did not immediately comment.

Apple releases first beta of iOS 13.1, indicating iOS 13 is nearly done

Surprise, Apple didn’t release yet another beta version of iOS 13. The company released the first developer beta of iOS and iPadOS 13.1 instead.

This is a curious move, as Apple doesn’t usually share beta versions of .1 updates before the release of major updates. What’s even more surprising is that Apple released new beta versions for watchOS 6.0 and tvOS 13.0 today.

Chances are that iOS 13.0 is pretty much done by this point. Usually, Apple releases major versions of iOS a few days after announcing the new iPhone — the press event will likely take place at some point in early September. The company might release iOS 13.0 a bit earlier than expected this year.

Apple removed some minor features in iOS 13 in early beta versions of iOS 13. As MacRumors spotted, many of those features are now back in the beta version of iOS 13.1. Those features include Shortcuts automations and the ability to share your ETA in Apple Maps.

It’s clear that Apple is trying to make iOS 13.0 as stable as possible, even if it means releasing some features a bit later this fall.