The Framing Continues

The framing of Australia's battle against Google and Facebook continues in a new piece with the inflammatory title Australian law could make internet ‘unworkable’, says World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee.

Here's what Sir Timothy had to say:

"Specifically, I am concerned that that code risks breaching a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking between certain content online"

This is indeed the problem: I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on the internet, so I won't comment on the legalities of the Australian situation — but any requirement to pay for links would indeed break the Web (not the Internet!) as we know it. But that's not the issue at risk, despite Google's attempts to frame the situation that way (emphasis mine):

Google contends the law does require it to pay for clicks. Google regional managing director Melanie Silva told the same Senate committee that read Berners-Lee’s submission last month she is most concerned that the code "requires payments simply for links and snippets."

As far as I can tell, the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code does not actually clarify one way or the other whether it applies to links or snippets. This lack of clarity is the problem with regulations drafted to address tech problems created by the refusal of tech companies to engage in good-faith negotiations. Paying for links, such as the links throughout this blog post, is one thing — and that would indeed break the Web. Paying for snippets, where the whole point is that Google or Facebook quote enough of the article, including scraping images, that readers may not feel they need to click through to the original source, is something rather different.

Lazily conflating the two only helps unscrupulous actors hide behind respected names like Tim Berners-Lee's to frame the argument their own way. In law and in technology, details matter.

And of course you can't trust anything Facebook says, as they have once again been caught over-inflating their ad reach metrics:

According to sections of a filing in the lawsuit that were unredacted on Wednesday, a Facebook product manager in charge of potential reach proposed changing the definition of the metric in mid-2018 to render it more accurate.

However, internal emails show that his suggestion was rebuffed by Facebook executives overseeing metrics on the grounds that the "revenue impact" for the company would be "significant", the filing said.

The product manager responded by saying "it’s revenue we should have never made given the fact it’s based on wrong data", the complaint said.

The proposed Australian law is a bad law, and the reason it is bad is because it is based on a misapprehension of the problem it aims to solve.

In The Frame

Google and Facebook have been feuding with the Australian government for a while, because in our cyberpunk present, that's what happens: transnational megacorporations go toe-to-toe with governments. The news today is that Google capitulated, and will pay a fee to continue accessing Australian news, while Facebook very much did not capitulate. This is what users are faced with, whether sharing a news item from an Australian source, or sharing an international source into Australia:

Image

I see a lot of analysis and commentary around this issue that is simply factually wrong, so here's a quick explainer. Google first, because I think it's actually the more interesting of the two.

The best way to influence the outcome of an argument is to apply the right framing from the beginning. If you can get that framing accepted by other parties — opponents, referees, and bystanders in the court of public opinion — you’re home free. For a while there, it looked like Google had succeeded in getting their framing accepted, and in the longer run, that may still be enough of a win for them.

The problem that news media have with Google is not with whether or not Google links to their websites. After all, 95% of Australian search traffic goes to Google, so that’s the way to acquire readers. The idea is that Google users search for some topic that’s in the news, click through to a news article, and there they are, on the newspaper’s website, being served the newspaper’s ads.

The difficulty arises if Google does not send the readers through to the newspaper’s own site, but instead displays the text of the article in a snippet on its own site. Those readers do not click through to the newspaper’s site, do not get served ads by the newspaper, and do not click around to other pages on the newspaper’s site. In fact, as far as the newspaper is concerned, those readers are entirely invisible, not even counted as immaterial visitors to swell their market penetration data.

This scenario is not some far-fetched hypothetical; this exact sequence of events played out with a site called CelebrityNetWorth. The site was founded on the basis that people would want to know how rich a given famous person was, and all was well — until Google decided that, instead of sending searches on to CelebrityNetWorth, they would display the data themselves, directly in Google. CelebrityNetWorth's traffic cratered, together with their ad revenue.

That is the scenario that news media want to avoid.

Facebook does the same sort of thing, displaying a preview of the article directly in the Facebook News Feed. However, the reason why Google have capitulated to Australia's demands and Facebook have not is that Facebook is actively trying to get out of dealing with news. It's simply more trouble than it's worth, netting them accusations from all quarters: they are eviscerating the news media, while also radicalising people by creating filter bubbles that only show a certain kind of news. I would not actually be surprised if they used the Australian situation as an experiment prior to phasing out news more generally (it's already only 4% of the News Feed, apparently).

There has also been some overreach on the Australian side, to be sure. In particular, early drafts of the bill would have required that tech companies give their news media partners 28 days’ notice before making any changes that would affect how users interact with their content.

The reason these algorithms important is that for many years websites — and news media sites are no exception — have had to dance to the whims of Facebook and Google's algorithms. In the early naive days of the web, you could describe your page by simply putting relevant tags in the META elements of the page source. Search engines would crawl and index these, and a search would find relevant pages. However, people being people, unscrupulous web site operators quickly began "tag stuffing", putting all sorts of tags in their pages that were not really relevant but would boost their search ranking.

And so began an arms race between search engines trying to produce better results for users, and "dark SEO" types trying to game the algorithm.

Then on top of that come social networks like Facebook, which track users' engagement with the platform and attempt to present users with content that will drive them to engage further. A simplistic (but not untrue) extrapolation is that inflammatory content does well in that environment because people will be driven to interact with it, share it, comment on it, and flame other commenters.

So we have legitimate websites (let's generously assume that all news media are legit) trying to figure out this constantly changing landscape, dancing to the platforms' whims. They have no insight into the workings of the algorithm; after all, nothing can be published without the scammers also taking advantage. Even the data that is provided is not trustworthy; famously, Facebook vastly over-inflated its video metrics, leading publications to "pivot to video", only to see little to no return on their investments. Some of us, of course, pointed out at the time that not everyone wants video — but publications desperate for any SEO edge went in big, and regretted it.1

Who decides what we see? The promise of "new media" was that we would not be beholden to the whims of a handful of (pale, male and stale) newspaper editors. Instead, we now have a situation in which it is not even clear what is news and what is not, with everybody — users and platforms — second-guessing each other.

And so we find ourselves running an experiment in Australia: is it possible to make news pay? Or will users not miss it once it's gone? Either way, it's going to be interesting. For now, the only big loser seems to be Bing, who had hoped to swoop in and take the Australian web search market from Google. The deal Google signed with News Corporation runs for three years, which should be enough time to see some results.


🖼️ Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash


  1. Another Facebook metric that people relied on was Potential Reach; now it emerges that Facebook knowingly allowed customers to rely on vastly over-inflated Potential Reach numbers

Who Needs Alps Anyway

Booked a day off work today because 2021 has done a number on me — and I really lucked out, with a lovely warm day for a 100km ride up into the hills. My legs are hurting now, but it was oh so worth it!

I also got to use my new Hestra Nimbus Split Mitts for the first time. These things are not gloves, but over-gloves; you wear them over your normal cycling gloves. They are completely unpadded and pretty unstructured, but that's the point; they are only there to protect your hands from the elements. The idea is that, on a ride like today's that spans from the low single-digits (Celsius) to the mid-high-teens, you can start off with the mitts, but then as you and the atmosphere warm up, you can peel them off and stuff them in a jersey pocket, while still having your usual gel-padded cycling gloves that you were wearing underneath.

I jumped on these mitts based on a recommendation from The Cycling Independent because I have hot hands, so there's a gap between the sort of weather where I want my heaviest gloves, that could masquerade as ski gloves in a pinch — basically sub-freezing — and when I'm comfortable in just plain finger-gloves without quilting on the backs. It felt a bit ridiculous to buy a whole other pair of gloves just for those in-the-middle days, plus I'd never know which gloves to wear and probably get it wrong all the time, so this combo of glove and over-glove works perfectly.

At least so far, they definitely work as advertised; they kept my hands warm as I pedalled through the fog, and then I took them off when I stopped for this pic, just before the serious climbing started. This ride spanned from 65m to over 900m, and it wasn't just one climb, either; there was plenty of up & down, as my legs will attest.

Clubhouse — But Why?

Everyone is talking about Clubhouse, and I just can't get excited about it.

Part of the reason people are excited about Clubhouse is that everyone is always on the lookout for the next big thing. The problem is that the Next Big Things that actually catch on tend to be the ones that are fun and even look like toys at the beginning — TikTok, or Snapchat before it. A floating conference call full of California techbros bigging each other's jobs up? Honestly, I'd pay good money to get out of that.

Clubhouse is not like TikTok in some important ways — and I'm talking about more than just the average age of their respective user bases. TikTok's innovation is its algorithm, which means that TikTok does not rely on existing social networks. Clubhouse is the polar opposite, piggybacking on users' social networks — and even their actual contact lists. Yes, it does that thing everyone hates where it tells you that somebody whose contact info you'd forgotten you had is on the new app you just joined — and worse, it tells them too.

Is this the next thing after podcasts? After all, podcasts are very one-directional; there is no inline interaction. The way my own Roll for Enterprise podcast works is, we record an episode, we clean it up and put it out, and people download it and listen to it. If you want to comment on something we said, you can message us on Twitter or LinkedIn — or of course start up your own podcast, and correct the record there.

The biggest reason I'm not convinced by Clubhouse, though, is that there seems to be an assumption that most users are going to listen passively and in real time to what is effectively an unmoderated radio phone-in panel. I listen to a number of podcasts, but I listen on my own schedule. The whole point is the offline nature of the podcasting, which means they're waiting for me when I'm ready for them, not vice versa. When it's time to shave or wash the dishes, I have a library of new episodes I can listen to. I don't have to worry about whether my favourite podcasters are streaming live right now; I have the recording, nicely cleaned-up and edited for my listening pleasure.

The whole podcast model is that once it's recorded, it's done and unchangeable. Clubhouse is not that; in fact it's the opposite of that. It's not even possible to record Clubhouse rooms from inside the app (although apparently they do retain recordings for their own purposes). This is where the problems start. Because right now Clubhouse seems to be just Silicon Valley insiders talking to each other, about each other, in their own time, there is basically nobody else in the world outside the West Coast of the US that can join in. Evening in California is too late for even New York, let alone Europe.

Or is this going for the Pacific market? People in Tokyo or Sydney spending their lunch break listening to American after-work chatter?

I've been wrong about social networks before, so I'm not saying this thing doesn't have a future. I'm saying it definitely isn't for me. If you disagree, you should come on the Roll for Enterprise podcast and tell us all what we're missing.


🖼️ Photo by Josh Rose on Unsplash

That Feeling When…

You know that feeling when you realise you may be a little bit outside the design envelope for your gear? That.

I was on the Bianchi, my gravel bike, not my full-sus fat-tyre MTB, when I ran into a stretch of uncleared road. I thought it was just two corners' worth, but it turned out to be quite a bit more than that, and icy underneath the snow.

Not bad for the last ride of the year!

Tech and distribution

We are in the middle of an under-recognised moment of change in the way software is paid for and in what makes a software product successful or not. Let me lay out my reasoning for what this transition is, and what it will mean in the near future.

The Past

Once there was a market for software at all, the key to success was control of the distribution channels. This was the main chokepoint — or opportunity, depending on how you look at it — because most people accessed technology via their work, so controlling the corporate purchasing decision was crucial. Nobody was going to engage in BYOD, Shadow IT, or any of the other hobgoblins of command-and-control central IT departments in the days when you needed a forklift to bring your own device into the office, probably from a loading dock.

Today

The situation most people are familiar with these days is one in which the terms of the relationship I described above have everted, with platforms people chose for themselves becoming adopted as corporate standards. The breakout moment was probably when people started buying their own iPhones instead of corporate-issue Blackberries, or maybe it was MacBooks instead of boring Dells. The best current example would be Slack, which gets adopted for free by small teams, or perhaps even experienced first as the platform for a side project, in the same way that people might have used IRC a couple of decades ago.

In this market, developers are the new kingmakers, not purchasing departments that mainly work to get the thing developers already chose on better terms. The key to success if you want to sell to the enterprise therefore is controlling the hearts and minds of those developers.

The Future (Coming Fast)

While people are still fighting over the details of the present (and to be sure, while pockets of the past still exist here and there), the wave of the future is already building. Here's the short version: democratisation of tech means line-of-business people can focus on the job to be done and route around developers who just want to play with the latest cool tech toys.

Some of the enabling technologies are out there already. Here are some signs and portents:

Another example would be Slack, a great success for the earlier model, but one whose inherent nature will prevent it from being successful in the same way in this future. The modular architecture that makes techies love Slack (the integrations! the bots! the custom emojis!) actually slows down the non-techies who just need to get their jobs done. By contrast, Teams' integrated platform largely gets out of the way and lets them get on with it. The techies mutter and complain about the insufficient quality of each of the constituent modules, but the integrated platform is rapidly winning the market. In the words of Aaron Levie of Box, "Salesforce is blowing past traditional departmental boundaries" and selling directly to new users within their existing customer organisations.

In other words, Slack tried to kill email, but ended up becoming email — and as I wrote back in 2016, email has a long head start and is just generally much better at being email:

most would-be email killers are walled gardens, consisting of a service that is tightly integrated with its client app and does not allow third-party clients. This makes it much harder for innovation to happen, because there is only one provider, and they deliver only the functionality that they want and can build. If you want a feature to be added to Slack, you can’t build your own Slack client; you have to petition Slack to do it, and they choose whether to implement that feature or not.

In the end, Slack, like email, became a feature. This is why the real benefit for Salesforce in its acquisition of Slack is consolidation and the end of modular, piecemeal acquisitions of SaaS products by companies.

The Pendulum Swings

This change is part of a natural pendulum process, from integration to modularisation and back, but with the points of integration and modularisation changing. What is differentiating can be a module that is valuable in its own right, but once it becomes table stakes, the conversation moves up a level to the integrated platform that module is a part of.

Developers should not feel bad about no longer being in charge; the benefit is that they are also no longer on call to fix those things when they break. There will always be a role for developers, but in the same way that there is more to choosing a car than its horsepower or efficiency, other considerations come into play for business users when they are selecting a tool for their everyday use.

The new role for IT is to remain a part of the process, studying and advising, but ultimately it's the users who decide — as it should be.

The Long Way Round

I had the day off today, but the kids were all in school — so I jumped on my bike and went looking for some sun.

I did at least get out of the fog as soon as I started climbing out of the plain, but despite a couple of attempts, the sun never did quite make it through the overcast.

Why do I ride a gravel bike? Precisely so I can do rides like this, with a long on-road approach, and then a fun bit at the top.

To be honest around here I would have been much better off with proper fat mountain-bike tyres; the Kendas on my Bianchi are pretty good for what they are, but they weren’t quite up to literal rivers of snowmelt coming down the path I was trying to ride up — so I stopped for a quick photo op and a breather.

The long way down, back on tarmac.

This sort of thing is good for the soul — that, and the shower beer I allowed myself when I got home… Cheers!

Why The M1 Won't Kill The iPad Pro

Quick, it's happening again!

This is my third CPU architecture transition since I've been a Mac user. I started on the 68k, with the weedy 68020 in my first Mac LC. When Apple moved to PowerPC, I cajoled my parents into getting a 603e — still relatively weedy in the context of the dual 604s I got to play with at work, but a massive upgrade from the LC. By the time of the Intel transition I was out of the Apple fold — I couldn't afford one as a student, and later prioritised gaming and dual-booting with Linux.

However, when the MacBook Air launched — yes, the very first one, with the 11" screen, no ports, and no power — I spent my own money rather than use the massive corporate-issue Dell that was assigned to me. Since then I've never looked back; every work computer I've had since that tiny MacBook Air has been a MacBook. My personal computer is my iPad Pro, but I also have a 2nd-gen Mac mini1 which runs headless to take care of various things around the house. An upgrade to SSD and maxed-out 16 GB of RAM keeps it chugging away, nearly a decade in.

When Apple announced the new M1-based Macs, I was blown away like everyone else by the performance on offer. I was particularly relieved to see the M1 Mac mini in the line-up, not because I have any urgent need to upgrade, but just to know that it remains a product in Apple's line-up, for whenever I might need to upgrade in the future. In the same way, I'm not pushing for an early upgrade of my work-issued MacBook Pro, because one of the must-haves for me is support for multiple monitors. I'm assuming that will come with the rumoured 14" Pros that are more clearly differentiated from the Air, so that's what I'm waiting for there.

Most of the commentary is trying to differentiate between the new Air and Pro, and figuring out whether to replace an iMac Pro (or even a Mac Pro!) with the M1 Mac mini. Some, though, have gone the other way, comparing the new MacBook Air to the iPad Pro. The article's conclusion is that "Apple's M1 MacBook Air kills the iPad Pro for the rest of us", but I'm not so sure.

Over-reach

My iPad is a substantially different device from my MacBook, and it gets used for different things, even when I have both within arm's reach. Let's dig into those differences, because they are key to understanding what (I think) Apple's strategy will be for the Mx MacBook and the iPad Pro in the future.

Form Factor

All of the comparisons in that ZDNet article are comparing the big 12.9" iPad Pro to the 13" MacBook Air — which is fair enough on the MacBook side, since that's what Apple has announced so far. On the iPad side, though, most people have the smaller size — currently 11" — and that is the more meaningful basis for differentiation. We'll see whether that changes when and if Apple ever releases a successor to my beloved MacBook Air 11", or SWMBO's (just) MacBook 12", aka the MacBook Adorable — but for now, if you want an ultra-portable device without sacrificing power, the smaller iPad Pro still has an edge.

External Display

Seriously, who connects an external display to an iPad? AirPlay is far more relevant for that use case. Meanwhile, I'm actually more bothered about the fact that no M1 MacBook allows for more than one monitor to be connected.

Webcam

This is a long-standing weak point of the MacBook line, and it's going to be hard to remedy simply due to physics. A better webcam requires more depth, meaning a thicker cover around and behind the screen. Again, though, the use case matters: it's more important for the iPad to have a good built-in webcam, because a MacBook is more likely to have an external one for people who really do care about image quality, resting on top of that external monitor. People who use their MacBook for work care a lot less about image quality anyway, because they may well be looking at a shared document rather than headshots most of the time.

What's Missing

A surprising omission from the list of differences between MacBook and iPad is the operating system. iOS — or rather, iPadOS — is a big differentiator here, because it affects everything about how these devices are actually used. This is the same mistake as we see in those older PC reviews that only compared the hardware specs of Macs to Wintel devices, missing out entirely on the differentiation that came from running macOS as opposed to Windows.

Confusion

I think the confusion arises from the Magic Keyboard, and how it makes the iPad Pro look like a laptop. This is the foundational error in this list of recommendations to improve the iPad Pro.

Adopt a landscape-first mindset. Rotate the Apple logo on the back and move the iPad’s front-facing camera on the side beneath the Apple Pencil charger to better reflect how most people actually use their iPad Pros.

No! Absolutely not! I use my iPad in portrait mode a lot more than I use it in landscape! Does it bug me that the Apple is rotated when I'm using it with the keyboard? Sure, a little bit — but by definition, I can't see it while I'm doing that.

Release a new keyboard + trackpad case accessory that allows the iPad to be used in tablet mode without removing it from the case.

Now this one I can stand behind: I still miss my origami keyboard case for my iPad Pro, which sadly broke. You could even rotate the Apple logo on the case, while leaving the one on the device in its proper orientation, if you really wanted to.

The reason I still miss that origami case is that I didn't replace it when it broke, thinking I would soon be upgrading my iPad Pro, and I would get a new keyboard case for the new-style flat-edge case. Then Apple did not refresh the iPad Pro line this year, so I still have my 10.5" model.

I do wonder whether this could be the reason why the iPad Pro didn't get updated when the new iPad and iPad Air did. That is, could there be an even better one coming, that differentiates more clearly against the M1 MacBook Air?

Then again, Apple may be getting ready to release a convergent device: a fold-over, touch- & Pencil-enabled MacBook. They would never tell us, so we'll just have to wait and see, credit cards at the ready.


  1. Yes, that really is how you're supposed to capitalise it. No, really

Hipster Bike Downtown

In my last bike post introducing the Bianchi, I mentioned that I had turned my previous steed into a single-speed city runabout. Well, today I was out running an errand astride said hipster conveyance, so I thought I’d get a pic of it too.

I love how the conversion turned out. The gear ratio is fine for short trips around town, optimised for short bursts, not sustained speed. The thing on the back wheel is just a chain tensioner. The flat bars are raised up by flipping the stem upside-down, so it’s actually a pretty comfortable thing to ride. It’s also still a very light bike, with its carbon fork and all, so it’s nippy and manoeuvrable around town. The old Campagnolo drive train was completely shot, and these days a gravel bike frame that won’t take disk brakes is basically unsaleable, so this is a better fate for my old Rat — even if it does mean that I now own more bicycles than the rest of the family put together!

Appropriately enough for such a bike, what I was doing out and about was buying fresh-ground coffee from my coffee roaster. The shop is a couple of streets back from the square in the photo, but they have a century-old roaster, and when it’s running you can smell the coffee clear to the square!