Even Apple is having to face the coronavirus music. Product announcements, like last week’s new iPhone SE launch, are now subdued due to being online-only. It is having to convert WWDC to an online-only event. Device sales are predicted to be considerably lower YoY. Fortunately for them, they’re already investing in subscription based services to tide over customers that don’t want to buy new hardware every few months.
I was reading an FT news article detailing how Apple’s Chinese contract manufacturers were having to downsize, well, by not hiring as fast they usually do. Buried in that article was a slight conversation with one factory worker who mentioned that he might be able to get a whole week off in April this year, as compared to just a day in the past years. He was also not working overtime.
Wow. I mean, we all know how hard these contractors have to work to make sure we get our new iPhones on launch day, but this is the first time that it connected to me with the name of an actual person.
While we’re enjoying our work-from-home regimen and safely self-isolating, it’s easy to forget the human toll caused by our mindless consumerism. And, it’s not just physical products that drive this consumerism; we’re also mindless consumers when it comes to financial products.
Apple enjoys one of the, if not the, highest profit margins on its products. Those margins are shared, albeit unequally, with investors and employees vested in Apple’s stock. Over the past few years, the company has been aggressively buying back its own stock to further elevate the stock price and hence the gains for its investors in the short term. So much so that investors expect the company to consistently overshoot its own earnings guidance.
It doesn’t have to be like this — Apple could easily make the gains more equitable across its value chain. While it has been forced to look into labor practices in the past, and has resorted to steps such as installing anti-suicide nets in factories, it can and should do more. There is no justifiable reason to maintain high profit margins, while innovation stays low and stock buy-backs remaining high, and while factory labor still has to work over-time and not enjoy the same amount of holidays and time-off as any software engineer or executive in the company.
Would it really matter that much if the margins reduced a little? Our devices would still cost the same; perhaps the share price would take a little downward beating, but in the long term, it would balance out and the company might in-fact be forced to actually live up to its values of innovation and user-centricity. Investors tend to forget any short-term bumps. It is also probably not a bad idea to simply stop catering to investors that don’t take a long-term view after all.
We should start expecting a higher degree of leadership from companies like Apple.
We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. There’s no shortage of news about what’s going well and what isn’t. Even then, every now and then, something pops up on the various news channels that makes you stop and think. One of these things is how Amazon recently fired 2 employees for speaking out against the company — and I have seen one of the Tweets that, apparently, “broke the camel’s back” — it was a proclamation that the employee was making a contribution towards the well-being of the various warehouse employees on Amazon’s roster that, allegedly, aren’t being taken care of and are being forced to work in life-threatening conditions.
This is not something that all of us are unaware of — just this week, France compelled Amazon to only deliver/process orders for essential items as investigations revealed that a lot of warehouse employees were having to break social-distancing rules for the sake of shipping bottles of wine or other luxurious items like Nintendo Switches. In what sounds like verbal retaliation, Amazon has responded with a threat that it would completely stop its operations in France.
This kind of corporate behavior has become so normal and acceptable over the last 2 decades that the unpopular opinion now is to actually take a personal stand over issues that don’t align with personal values. When governments force better citizenship, they’re maligned. When private individuals do as much as voice their opinions outside of work in their private time, they’re found guilty of violating social media rules in the workplace.
While most people don’t go beyond the short-term impact of such punitive action against upholding a person’s identity and values, the long term impact is tremendous. People, evolutionally, have an urge to spread and validate their inherent values. While financial compensation and social acceptance is a way to successful limit these urges, these feelings have a way of boiling over and causing more harm than necessary.
In this hyper-connected world where all of our communications, down to where we are moving and which web pages we’re clicking on is traceable back to us, and is ultimately consequential to our work place and social acceptance, it becomes that much important to separate our humanity from our workplace obligations. To that end, we need to go back to how we expressed our opinions in the early days of the Internet, and where what we said or expressed was countered in a non-personal, reasonable manner.
This was especially true at universities and schools. We all had a webpage or two, where we expressed our thoughts, our plans, and ultimately, journaled our life and experiences. There were no repercussions for questioning politics or expressing an unpopular opinion that went against the University administration. At most, you would be referred to an independent ombudsman (person?) whose goal was to help both the parties.
Contrast that to now — people, especially those with good jobs at multinational organizations, seldom find the time or build a place to express themselves using their true identity. There have been countless instances of those that did so not recovering from the repercussions for a very long time. In fact, the bigger the company, the higher the chances of never being accepted anywhere else, and the greater the risk.
This is not how it’s supposed to be.
The more people avoid free expression, the more they flock to echo chambers that have the ‘other person with nothing to lose’ voicing their opinions that they could only look at for re-affirmation, but have no way to refine or to dilute towards the less radical. The algorithms at work tend to make this echo chamber ever bigger, and the same companies that ‘enable’ this ‘free expression’ build internal mono-cultures that dampen real expression by their own employees.
Those that continue to operate free blogs and voicing free opinion do so under the pretense of having nothing to lose, which is often a result of opting not to work for these companies or to de-prioritize career advancement in the traditional sense. After all, shouldn’t the top executive at Amazon be, in fact, supporting their warehouse workers and thanking the blogger instead of ignoring any punitive action taken against them by the company?
There is glimmer of hope that the world after this latest pandemic would be the world that uses the forced pause to reflect upon the values that make us human. Already, governments are stepping up efforts to better calibrate compensation for the delivery and healthcare workers according to their real contribution to the society. The world could certainly do with more equity and equality.
And more than anything, we need to make space for the unpopular opinion, for more often than not, the opinion is a result of having spent time pondering over things that no one else deemed necessary, or because someone had the courage to go against the grain.
A famous VC blogged about the ‘Free and Open Internet‘ recently. Their rant — they couldn’t read a newspaper opinion piece for free, which is a fundamental right of all human beings, and in those circumstances they feel that newspapers have ‘ceded their role as the public square to places like Twitter and Medium that remain open and free‘.
Free as in beer? Free as in a dream?
Twitter and Medium are hardly free. They monetize your free expression. They prioritize the trending content instead of what you want to see or read. They log everything you do on their platforms and beyond, and then they leak that data to advertisers and repressive governments. People die.
Newspapers have always been paid. The public square is the park or the verandah where you read a newspaper and discuss stories with other humans. This is a concept that none of the ‘hardworking’ employees of Twitter or Medium would understand. How many hours do they even get to spend at home without answering a work email or fixing issues?
If you want to read an opinion piece, go buy a newspaper, or borrow one, or goto the library. Oh, a library. Another architectural artifact from the bygone era that these ‘entrepreneurs’ want to get rid of. Because public money is better spent on funding their startups.
The free and open internet was a goofy place. A place where you could set up a cheap website with rudimentary skills and show it off. No botheration with SEO or tracking your visitors or showing them ads. Everything was cheap. Technology still continues to be cheap and free.
So what changed? People changed. They’re more entitled to ‘information’ just like this rich guy. No, you don’t just get stuff for free. It’s a lie. Stop reading crap like this and go setup your own blog, write your own opinions, and start your own companies without borrowing or begging from selfish enablers of bad behavior.
The Internet is still a wonderful place to connect with others. You just have to stay clear of the pull of the free. And remember, the only thought leader who really matters is you.
There is nothing philosophical about getting old – it’s a biological process. You could try to run from it, but you can’t hide from the age monster.
What is philosophical, though, is how your priorities change. Case in point – love for gadgets.
There was a time when I was the first person in my circle of acquaintances to procure the latest and greatest gadget. The first iPhone, the first iPad, the first online radio hardware player, you name it, I bought it.
That drive is now gone. It’s more about making the most of what I have. I have been using a 4 year old laptop. It just works and is only marginally slower than the latest and greatest. My desktop is inching towards its 3rd birthday. New iPads were announced and they don’t excite me.
I have gone from being a gadget freak to a gadget lover. I love my toys for the joy and productivity they bring. The computing gadget are indispesable, but so are the new Snapchat Spectacles, a cheap piece of tech that makes it a much more joyful experience to capture daily videos. Whereas I couldn’t really manage to make videos of my cycling trips with an iPhone, the ones that come out of these googles are nothing short of amazing.
I want new things rather than new things.
Apart from the aging process, I think a driver for this change is the fact that most gadgets now come with a yearly upgrade cycle. The periodic purchases for the same gadget, just shinier and faster, gets old after a few tries. In the interest of the planet and sustainability, tech companies need to start looking at ways to maximize earnings without forcing users to spend on new devices every few months.
Sonos is great at this. The speaker you purchased 4 years ago still works like new and still receives the same software updates as one you purchased just yesterday.
I can’t imagine myself springing for a new car every year once tech companies pivot to transportation. Or, maybe that would be a sign that gadgets are better leased than owned.
We have been getting our feet wet with starting our first business over the past few weeks; it has been fun; it has been exhilarating. While in the digital world you measure performance by metrics such as user counts and reviews, in the real world, people come back to you and give you verbal compliments. They refer your products to others who might enjoy them as well.
It is something I wish that I had done earlier!
Now, with a business comes the overhead of various things, one of which is building and maintaining your business’s online presence. Websites are hard enough, not to mention keeping them safe and secure, that a lot of businesses end up with terrible websites that take a lot of time and money to get done by outside contractors.
We had the same dilemma as we purchased a domain and then spent time and money buying and learning various WordPress themes to figure out the best for us. This is even before you start generating content that would ultimately draw customers in. In our events driven business, a lot of this content is in the form of photos and videos. The website also needs to have things like calendar feeds and a way to sign people up for your upcoming events. It would be great to be able to do live videos and respond to people in real time.
Clearly, this is not a simple website we are talking about.
After a lot of tweaking the theme, I came upon an idea – how about redirecting every visitor on our website to our Facebook Page. We needed the Page anyway since that’s how we communicate with our customers and share pictures. Might as well just make it our business website. The only thing missing is email, but that’s an easy problem to solve with the help of any business email provider that supports custom domains.
Facebook Pages provide blogging capabilities, photo albums, apps for business owners as well as consumers, live messaging, and above all, a marketing and analytics platform that really helps in reaching out to the best customers. I am not sure why they haven’t already started selling branded webpages as a service, much like their FB at Work product.
Setting up required a little bit of effort because they don’t natively provide this as a service. This means that you still need to set up your web server to redirect requests to Facebook. At this time, I haven’t set up any custom links on the server, but there is potential in the future to set up links like <yourdomain>/blog to redirect to your Facebook Page’s Notes section.
Now I can focus all my time and energy on one medium. This will definitely change in the future as the business evolves and it would not be feasible to expect every site visitor to have a Facebook login, or be able to use it for e-commerce. Hopefully, Facebook would start offering a more business-ready toolkit by that point.
One of my newest technology pet-peeves is apps that require an account even before giving me an opportunity to try them out or learn more about them. It’s not just the small players that do this, increasingly, but rather big name app providers like Microsoft.
Just this morning, I downloaded Microsoft’s latest To-Do app. Intuitively, my task list is something that could just as well reside on my smartphone without ever requiring to be synced onto the ‘cloud’, but, no, Microsoft would have none of that logic. The first screen is a login screen. I can’t even preview the UI without as much as sharing my phone number and other personal details.
How’s this for a To-Do – don’t download apps that need me to register before trying them out.
On a whim, 4 weeks ago, I logged onto the Apple Store app and decided to check the AirPods availability for in-store pickup. As I write this, they’re in extremely limited supplies with online ordered backordered by about 6 weeks and general store availability more than a month into the future. If you’re feeling lucky, you could check the app a few times a day to grab one as limited supplies come in sporadically.
I am generally not a fan of headphones. Firstly, I am not out of the house much, and then when I do have to step out every now and then, I prefer spending my time reading. Secondly, I can never settle for a pair – sometimes I want good in-ear headphones, while at other times, I crave for a wonderful over-the-head set. Whenever I do use one, I usually settle for the ones you get for free with an iPhone, even though I also own a pair of Beats in wonderful red!
Technologically, these are the best Bluetooth headphones I have ever used – not because of the range or the battery life, but because they alleviate the biggest pain-point with Bluetooth headphones – connecting and reconnecting with devices. When it comes to battery life, owing to their minuscule size, the AirPods actually have very little to offer. You will almost always need to carry the charging box since they only last like 5 hours on a single charge; less so if you spend some of that time having a real time call.
I have not had them fall out of my ears, yet, either, and I do sometimes wear them to the bathroom or while hastily walking towards the next train. Not connecting via a cable, they’re extremely good to use with traveling in a train when your station is near and you have to wear your jacket before you get off. In fact, were they connected together by cable, they probably wouldn’t even qualify for a purchase by me.
As the title of this post implies – the AirPods are also the first piece of ‘social wearables’ technology that I have in my possession. Let me explain – sure, they’re just headphones, but since the two earpieces aren’t connected by cable, you get to enjoy the sound with someone else as long as they’re within the signal range. This changes everything!
My favorite use is listening to a podcast while on our morning walk. This way, both of us (V&I) are listening to the same thing and can discuss it later. The AirPods are also great for FaceTime calls while you’re out in public. The only downside is that only one microphone works at a time, so you still have to sit very close together. No longer are you beholden by the lack of multiple audio outputs on your phone!
What is otherwise quite an isolating experience – walking while listening to a podcast is now suddenly much more fun and social. It also feels different since can just pop out your headphone from your ear and the podcast pauses for both of you automatically to give you time to discuss something or to decide what to get from the grocery store on the walk back home.
I wonder if this aspect of the AirPods could be used to build some interesting games/puzzles.
All-in-all, I find myself using the AirPods a lot more than I have used other headphones in the past. They’re small, sleek, light, and as simple to use as just popping them in your ears. Definitely a fan!
Another day another backdoor in a messaging application. It seems like the more you care about your privacy the easier it gets for state actors to snoop upon your communications.
I believe it is time that we bring back the old instant messaging paradigm. If you recall from your early Yahoo! Messenger/AIM days, instant messaging was always synchronous. The services provided ways to send messages between users, but their main implementation was akin to a directory service. While you could look up if a contact was offline, you could only send them a message if they were online and available.
As these IM networks became more advanced and popular, services began offering the capability to send ‘offline’ messages. These messages, by their nature, would be stored on the company’s server until the recipient went online and was able to download them. This was a diversion from the quasi-synchronous behavior to one that was more a store-and-forward system, just like email. I believe that one of the reasons for this change was that as more people started obtaining always-on broadband connections, it became harder for messaging software to directly connect with other computers. This is because due to IPv4 design challenges, computers sharing an Internet IP address had to be put behind address translators and that made it necessary to employ an intermediary service that the clients could connect to. This solved the connectivity issue while also affording the capability to send offline messages.
Of course, any time you introduce a store-and-forward system into your communications, you are opening it up for easier surveillance. I say easy because the listener/hacker does not have to be listening in real-time. They could just get access to the store system and read the communication asynchronously.
This was also a time when security and privacy was something no one even thought of.
With the current privacy climate, I think it is time to get back to the basics. Messaging should be like making a phone call. If the other person is offline or not available, the messages need to either be dropped or be unable to be sent. This is the best way to protect privacy.
Now that IPv6 is gaining traction and helps alleviate the address translation issues with the ‘old Internet’, it is all the while easier to build such a chat system without much effort. Forget secure messaging services; the best security is one that you control.
So how would this work?
Open source, based on an open directory standard that would allow people to indicate availability by virtue of a unique identifier. What this identifier can be is an implementation detail, but a phone number or email sounds like a good idea.
When clients connect to the directory server, they can query a particular contact’s availability status. Additionally, they will be able to advertise their network address so that other clients could establish a connection directly for messaging. No store-and-forward.
Open source, based on open connectivity standards. The client would tell the directory server that a contact with the specified identifier is online and ready to receive messages/voice/video at their particular address.
In order to send or receive messages, the usual encryption techniques would be followed. I envision an extension to the existing public key infrastructure, but for people.
This is my general idea and I am sure that I am not the only person who would love to see something like this.
A lot of people that use today’s messaging platforms have never seen the glory days of instant messaging past. We still had bots in the early 00’s. We had voice and video as well. We had everything! What we did not have back then was secret backdoors. Or maybe they were pretty good secrets!
As phones and computers get more powerful and the Internet more advanced, it only makes sense to cut out the middleman.
A lot of people have proclaimed that blogging is dead, that it doesn’t generate any traffic, and that no one reads blogs anymore. Personally, I don’t know the last time I kept up with a blog on a regular basis like a few years ago. The problem is not the lack of people who share their ideas. Rather, as more people take to ‘social media’ and instant messaging, there remains very little incentive to write out a well thought-out post to be shared. This means that people now spend less time on long-form writing than they do on just sharing snippets.
Indeed, if you search for something of interest, you are more likely to find SEO-fied links on the first 2 result pages about products or advertising than any relevant read. As more and more advertising money flows into search advertising, there is an SEO economy being created where the only winners are websites with a huge advertising and/or SEO budget.
At the same time, a lot of platforms are being created to help people express themselves. Facebook being in the forefront, trailed by companies like Medium. There is no dearth of hosted blog providers who have adopted the Twitter approach of follows and likes to float more popular posts towards the top. A lot of companies boast of using ‘AI’ to figure out what content would prove to be sticker and hence generate more clicks for the authors.
People don’t even read newspapers anymore. On a recent Facebook exchange, I was reminded by a ‘mainstream media’ sceptic that newspapers, or dead-tree publications, as he likened them to, are not the only way to procure your dose of daily news. Indeed, what was once seen as blogging is now increasingly also the format used to report news. It’s the ease of sharing and embedding advertising that makes online blogging a wonderful substitute to subscribing to a printed/electronic newspaper.
So, why were blogs such a wonderful thing?
You could always count on a multitude of blogs positing different approaches to solving a particular problem or educating you about a topic from all perspectives. Stuck trying to figure out how your country’s foreign policy works? Just read up a few posts by passionate bloggers who breathe foreign policy and are eager to share their opinions and understanding.
Newspapers are feeling the heat, too. While a lot of them have established credible online and digital distribution systems, right down to monetization, they simply cannot compete with the phenomenon of click driven ‘fake news’. Whereas in the past people were careful to not treat a certain blogger or website as the face of truth, now that social media has made blogging a more mainstream way to distribute facts, now this area is getting murky. A lot of these websites are primarily content aggregators that they incredulously ingest from other similar websites or persons. What generates clicks are headlines. What’s the incentive to even hire and perform true journalism any more if truth is difficult to swallow and also does not sell well?
Using social media and these blogging platforms is much easier than ever because you don’t have to worry about the technical nitty-gritty like security and maintenance. At the same time, most of these platforms are free to publish on as they make money through advertising. Their currency is likes and followers. You, as an author, feel you’re getting enhanced reach.
Yesterday, I even watched live an incoming president of a developed country dismiss a credible and historic news channel as the purveyor of ‘fake news’.
There is a huge problem inherent with the ‘platformization’ of the web – censorship. While I have not had the pleasure of living in an authoritarian state, a lot of people have that misfortune. Platforms have to follow local laws, which change abruptly based on who is controlling the government. If they don’t follow these laws, they lose the market and hence the money. There are rumors that Facebook is working on a special censorship tool for the Chinese market that would allow them to enter it and hence make a ton of money from the world’s most populous market. Recently, they also started censoring posts and notes that were written unfavorably towards the government in The Philippines.
Apart from censorship, since you don’t control the platform and the laws change abruptly, you can never be sure that your news/content would outlive the platform or would not suddenly be deleted one day.
Solution – let’s get back to the basics. Have a friend set up your blog for you. Because if you control your platform you control your freedom of speech. If your hosting provider tries to censor you, there are others that would offer you refuge. The web was built to be run that way.
Here is something I shared on Facebook when the platform was accused of spreading fake news:
To say that the problem is just ‘fake news’ would be trivializing it. To say that the problem of ‘fake news’ could be solved technologically would be fooling everyone.
There are multiple issues – one of them being conflict of interest. Facebook makes money based on clicks. Fake and sensational information generates more clicks. Any technological solution would be at odds with the objective of maximizing clicks and visits.
AI is another example of Silicon Valley’s bubble. By nature, AI and henceFacebook‘s approach of creating algorithms, would always lag behind trends in society/pop culture. AI is a cute term for big data collection. This makes it implicit that any intelligence is created after the trends go mainstream. AI is the reason why everyone’s news feed is messed up and also why FB insists upon not showing posts chronologically. That impacts click-throughs. When FB talks about AI, translate it to – process of prioritizing paid posts and external links over user-generated content in a way that it’s less obvious and annoys you just a tad less than to the extent of making you quit.
The best way to use FB is to use it like a repository or a blog. That way chronological order wouldn’t matter much. Stop using the feed. Organically search for posts and pictures. Facebook makes it near impossible, but switch your feed to show posts in their chronological order.
Most importantly, don’t make it the only place you seek out information. The web is huge.
If you have to share something, first consider the possibility of adding something more or even saying it in your own words. The less time and effort you put into what you share with friends and family, the easier it gets for any AI to win over humanity and to further the gap between the elites and the ‘losers’.
AI’s currency is your lack of time and effort. Make it clear that you’re the boss of your profile
Now, more than ever, it is important to start reading credible news sources. If you can’t afford a newspaper subscription, find out the nearest library that has one. If you read something online, make sure you can verify its authenticity by checking other sources. If you’re still unsure, ask someone else.
When more people blog and share their ideas, rather than mere snippets or forwards, the whole country moves forward. Free exchange of ideas enables the society to move forward and to settle differences through intellectual exchange. More opinions enable better policies.
The least we can expect from a developed civilization is the facilitation of free and uncensored exchange of ideas.