Apple is still tending its walled garden

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Apple has released public betas for the next big Apple Watch and Mac software updates. On the Mac, Big Sur (as the OS is called) has a ton of visual differences that I think will grow on you — they make macOS look just a little more like iOS. It also does a weird new thing with links — which also makes the Mac feel just a little more like iOS, too.

The link behavior popped up on Twitter yesterday: if you’re an Apple News Plus subscriber, clicking links to publications that are part of that subscription bundle will take you to the Apple News app instead of your browser. iOS 14 will do the same thing.

If you’re paying for Apple News Plus, this may be exactly what you want to happen. Instead of opening a page with a paywall, you just get the article you clicked on. Yes, the Apple News app itself is about as capable as Internet Explorer 3 compared to your browser with its tabs and such, but at least you don’t have to go though a copy and paste dance.

I do find the behavior a little weird. If you click a link in Safari, it opens Apple News. If you click a link in Chrome, it stays in Chrome. If you click a link in some other app like Slack, it opens in Apple News — even if your default browser is Chrome. That’s odd simply because it’s not clear how Big Sur knows that it should redirect some websites but not others. Is it checking in with a pre-approved list of participating publisher sites (if so, at least it’s offline)? Is that list stored locally or is it checking in with Apple? Whatever the answer, the point is that what happens when you click a link is inconsistent. Maybe it opens a browser, maybe it opens Apple News.

Apple is allowing you to uncheck an option for this in the preferences for the Apple News app, at least. Apple also sent this statement to me:

Apple is committed to creating the best experience for Apple News+ subscribers. This change offers subscribers seamless access to the content that is part of their News+ subscription right in the News app or publisher app, as well as providing publishers with increased engagement and revenue opportunities on Apple News. News+ subscribers can set their link preference in their News settings.

I followed up with Apple to ask how Big Sur knows which links should go where and Apple declined to comment.

Tony Haile is the person who brought all this up on Twitter, and he further pointed out that it means that publishers who do offer a direct subscription option will lose out on that chance with people going directly to Apple News, which pays much less.

Haile, you should know, is the CEO of a company called Scroll that competes with Apple News in setting up partnerships with publishers. (I’ve written about it before, here.) So he isn’t an impartial observer. And as long as I’m disclosing, Vox Media has partnerships with both Apple News and Scroll. That’s the thing about the decline of the web: suddenly it’s a lot harder to ignore the transactions that happen when you click a link.

Anyway, there are much larger storylines you could plug this weird new link behavior into. There’s the fear that Apple is beginning to compromise user experience in the name of its services revenue. There’s the storyline that Apple actively distrusts the web and would like more activity to happen inside apps than inside browsers. If browsers are used less, that means fewer intrusive ads (win), less tracking (win), and less money for competitors like Google (triple bonus!).

I am not hunting for a conspiracy here, though. Sometimes a company’s incentives line up with its values. I think it’s also fair to just read it as Apple finding that its users are hitting paywalls when they don’t need to because they’re already paying for Apple News Plus.

Now to me, clicking on a link with “http” in front of it should take you to a web browser, but that’s just what I’m used to. Nobody said links are the exclusive domain of the web. My overall vibe on seeing this behavior in Big Sur was a big …sure, whatever.

But to bring it all the way back around: preferencing Apple News over the otherwise normal behavior for links makes the Mac work just a little more like the iPhone, where until iOS 14 Apple rigidly controlled the default apps for everything. Even in iOS 14, only the email and browser apps can be changed.

The same “values and incentives” thing is coming for in-app ads on iOS 14. Third-party apps will need to ask users for permission to track on an app-by-app basis — but Apple’s own ad network apparently has a default opt-in for “Personalized Ads.” Apple legitimately is a thousand percent less creepy than the rest of the app ad ecosystem, but that doesn’t mean Apple itself won’t benefit. It’s both.

While we are on the subject of iOS, it’s been at the center of another controversy. Apple has reasserted that cloud gaming services like xCloud and Stadia violate App Store guidelines. It provided a repeat of a statement it had given Mark Gurman this past March, saying that “gaming services can absolutely launch on the App Store as long as they follow the same set of guidelines applicable to all developers, including submitting games individually for review, and appearing in charts and search.”

Microsoft and Facebook issued fiery counter-statements, but I expect Apple will stand firm. It values reviewing apps for content and security too much and its Apple Arcade incentives happen to align with those values. Of course, I could be wrong: this could all just be a bunch of negotiation posturing as it was with Amazon.

Bottom line: Apple won’t allow Stadia or xCloud on the iPhone or iPad anytime soon.

I’ve made it this far without using the obvious cliché: “walled garden.” There it is, though. The thing about clichés is that they come from somewhere. It’s a good reminder that even hackneyed phrases can still have explanatory power. Walls are only there because people built them — I just wish they’d put more effort into building some doors, too.

Reviews and first looks

Acer Chromebook Spin 713: the Chromebook to buy. If I were buying a Chromebook today, I’d follow Monica Chin’s advice and get this one. Acer continues to just dominate Chromebooks.

If you’re deciding between the Spin 713 and the $1,000 Galaxy Chromebook or the $849 i5 model of the Pixelbook Go, I would say you need a pretty good reason not to choose the Spin.

Samsung Galaxy Buds Live review: cool beans. Chris Welch:

To be very clear, these earbuds let in a significant amount of outside noise at all times. That’s intentional and where I think the “Live” part of the name comes from. These aren’t going to drown out your co-workers when we get back to the office someday, nor are they going to be your preferred airplane companions. Samsung says it designed the Buds Live to eliminate very low frequencies — think the persistent hum of an air conditioner or the rumbling of an Amtrak — and you can hear some of that ambient sound get sliced off when you turn on active noise cancellation.

Sony WH-1000XM4 review: the best noise-canceling headphones get better. Chris Welch had a double feature on headphone reviews:

But to fend off its rivals, Sony has returned with the new $349.99 1000XM4 headphones, available for preorder today and shipping later this month. They address the two main downsides of the previous product: you can now pair to two devices simultaneously, and updated mics should make for clearer calls.

The best part of the Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 Plus is its screen. Dan Seifert on the best thing about this tablet (the worst thing, of course, is that Android is not good on tablets):

Unsurprisingly, the absolute best thing by far about the Tab S7 Plus is its display. This 12.4-inch OLED panel is bright, vibrant, and pixel-dense. Colors practically jump off the screen, and the blacks are as inky and deep as they are on the LG OLED TV hanging in my living room. Topping it off is the 120Hz refresh rate, which makes every interaction buttery smooth. Yes, the iPad Pro has had this feature for three years, but it’s just as much of a delight here as it is on Apple’s tablet. In fact, given that this is an OLED panel, I might even argue that this is the nicest screen I’ve ever seen on a mobile device.

The new 27-inch iMac’s webcam isn’t just better; it’s smarter. And here’s my look at the new 2020 iMac.

Tech News

Toshiba is officially out of the laptop business. RIP.

Microsoft’s new Xbox Series S console confirmed in leaked controller packaging.

E Ink demos a folding e-reader that can also take notes. I’ve seen a lot of prototypes from E Ink, which is the company that officially makes screens that are proper E Ink and not just “e-paper” or whatever. Also an inside baseball note: if you are a tech blogger and mess any of the above up, E Ink will definitely be letting you know. The company’s whole bag is to promote E Ink, after all. ANYWAY! I would love to see something like this in a smaller form factor. There’s something I love about holding a book open at an angle; it’s a scratch that regular e-readers don’t itch.

Google Maps finally works with CarPlay’s excellent dashboard mode.

Google has already discontinued the Pixel 4 and 4 XL.

Google’s Pixel 5 and Pixel 4A 5G could be available to preorder on October 8th.

Microsoft signals renewed interest in Windows with latest reshuffle. Tom Warren:

Now, Microsoft is moving parts of Windows development back under Panos Panay’s control. Specifically, that means the Windows fundamentals and developer experience teams have been returned to what we traditionally call the Windows team. It’s an admission that the big Windows split didn’t work quite as planned. We’ve seen plenty of evidence of that with a messy development experience for Windows 10, delayed Windows updates, a lack of major new features, and lots of Windows update issues recently.

TikTok and China

The US declared war on TikTok because it can’t handle the truth. Sarah Jeong zooms out from the back and forth news stories to talk about the larger context. Must read:

I call this ideology information-nationalism. Here’s how I would describe its assumptions:
1. When your country acknowledges human rights abuses, you are made weak
2. You can weaken rival nation-states by exposing their human rights abuses

The big legal questions behind Trump’s TikTok and WeChat bans. Adi Robertson:

There’s at least one major wrinkle in both cases: while sanctions are nothing new, the ByteDance and Tencent orders ban Americans from accessing a piece of software and (at least in theory) the content on its network. This is unusual and could raise First Amendment questions that don’t apply in other IEEPA cases — including arguments that apps like TikTok are protected speech, or that banning them would infringe on users’ ability to engage in it.

Bill Gates calls Microsoft’s TikTok deal a poisoned chalice.

How Trump’s WeChat ban could devastate Apple’s Chinese business. Chaim Gartenberg:

An iPhone without WeChat is effectively not a phone at all for the hundreds of millions of Chinese users that rely on the service — customers on which Apple’s entire iPhone business model relies. If Apple can’t offer WeChat on the iPhone due to Trump’s ban, then much of its Chinese business will almost certainly evaporate overnight.

Huawei says it’s running out of chips for its smartphones because of US sanctions. Kim Lyons:

[Trump’s order] prevented foreign manufacturers of semiconductors who use American software and technology in their operations from shipping their products to Huawei unless they first obtained a license from the US. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), the largest semiconductor manufacturer in the world, reportedly halted orders for Huawei’s HiSilicon unit in May following the new US rule.

More from The Verge

Scientists rename human genes to stop Microsoft Excel from misreading them as dates. Incredible story by James Vincent:

There are tens of thousands of genes in the human genome: minuscule twists of DNA and RNA that combine to express all of the traits and characteristics that make each of us unique. Each gene is given a name and alphanumeric code, known as a symbol, which scientists use to coordinate research. But over the past year or so, some 27 human genes have been renamed, all because Microsoft Excel kept misreading their symbols as dates.

Computer scientist Frances Allen, known for her work on compiling, dies at 88. Kim Lyons:

Allen helped build an experimental compiler for IBM’s Advanced Computing system, and from 1980 to the mid-1990s, she headed a research team at IBM working on the new concept of parallel computing, which became widely used in personal computers. She also helped develop software for IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputer project.

The Galaxy Z Fold 2 is Samsung’s big promise that it can fix its foldable future. Chaim Gartenberg:

It’s a message focused on selling customers a phone based on the things that it isn’t — too small, too awkward, too prone to breaking — rather than the things that it is. It also puts a lot of pressure on the upcoming Z Fold 2.

Microsoft and Samsung need each other now more than ever. Jon Porter:

It’s not a new partnership, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella even personally appeared at Samsung’s Note 10 event last year. But it’s more important than ever before, as the industry hurtles toward the next big ecosystem battle between iOS and Android. It’s no longer just about the phones themselves but about how these phones interact with the other computers in your life, whether they’re laptops, desktops, or even game consoles. And Samsung’s deepening partnership with Microsoft is essential to its approach.

Update, 12:10pm ET August 11th: added parenthetical note that Big Sur’s check for Apple News Plus redirects doesn’t appear to ping Apple’s servers, as per Jeff Johnson.

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