My Place in Tech

When I look back on the past few months of things I’ve discussed at length on BirchTree, a few things jump out:

  1. Magic Keyboard for iPad
  2. What gets to call itself a podcast?
  3. Stock apps vs third party options
  4. Buying into a philosophy when using the iPad

The common thread between all of these is that they all address something that is causing the tech community to feel like they need to get into 2-3 unique camps, and that they don’t want to concede any points to the other camps.

For the Magic Keyboard, I voiced an opinion that the weight is not ideal, and I’d prefer it if it didn’t add so much bulk, but I understand why it’s there and love the product despite that. For podcasting, I said that while I greatly dislike podcasts going exclusive to specific apps, I thought that didn’t mean they ceased being podcasts. For stock apps, I explained the benefits of using Apple’s stock iPhone apps, despite personally not using almost any of them. And with the iPad philosophy, I agreed with the “complaint” that some voiced with needing to buy into one to use the iPad to its fullest potential, but explained how that was the case for all computing platforms, and that was kinda the whole point.

I hope that I am a sobering voice in the world of tech bloggers. I don’t try to write things that are scandalous or are just written to stir the pot of controversy, and I am not on any company’s list for getting pre-release hardware for reviews, so I don’t tend to go viral. I definitely have opinions, and I hope that if you have followed me for more than a few weeks, you have a good idea of what I think, but I try to make sure that my opinions are presented as such; they are my opinions, they are not facts.

I think we need the people who rile things up, the world is a more interesting place with them in it, but I’m just not one of those people.

How Open Podcasts Can Compete

The open podcast ecosystem is dying — here’s how to save it. - Divinations

If the open podcast ecosystem wants to compete, they have to figure out a way to implement ideas like these. They cannot stay stuck in the status quo. This currently feels impossible, but fortunately, they have a good example to look up to: the web.

Back in the late 90’s, webpages were very different than they are now. CSS was barely a thing. JavaScript was totally different. There were no advanced technologies like WebGL and websockets. If you wanted the best user experience, you had to use a proprietary system like Flash.

But, eventually, the W3C and companies like Apple and Google got their act together, and the open web caught up. The web standards movement won.

Related to what I’ve been pondering this week, Nathan Baschez has a thoughtful, excellent piece on what open podcasting can do to compete with exclusive shows as more and more move to these closed platforms.

I am way, way more interested in the items listed in this article happening rather than arguing til next decade on what technically is or isn’t a “podcast”.

Also, I can’t help but think about podcast clip sharing that Overcast added last year. This was a huge improvement to sharing podcast moments on social media! I think I use them more than most people, but it’s so refreshing to be able to share my favorite moments and have people hear them without needing to make sure they have the right podcast app installed, wait for the episode to download, and hope that it took them to the right time stamp. More of this, please!

The Historical Context of the Word "Podcast"

The history of the word "podcast" has come up a lot in response to my "career suicide" article yesterday, with people saying that the fact that podcasts are distributed over an open RSS feed being a funamental element of what makes a podcast a podcast. Memory is a fickle thing, so I did some digging for how people desribed podcasts in the early days of the medium. Here's a few examples.

The Guardian in 2004, the first reference to the word "podcast" I can find

With the benefit of hindsight, it all seems quite obvious. MP3 players, like Apple's iPod, in many pockets, audio production software cheap or free, and weblogging an established part of the internet; all the ingredients are there for a new boom in amateur radio.

But what to call it? Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?

"It's an experiment, really," says Christopher Lydon, the ex-New York Times and National Public Radio journalist, and now a pioneer in the field. "Everything is inexpensive. The tools are available. Everyone has been saying anyone can be a publisher, anyone can be a broadcaster," he says, "Let's see if that works."

Lydon's programmes, downloadable from his weblog, are interviews with webloggers, internet pioneers, and more recently, politicians, as the American presidential election campaigns gain speed.

Entrepreneur from 2006

Podcasting takes its name from Apple's popular iPod line of products, but it isn't limited only to iPod owners and listeners. What distinguishes a podcast from other types of audio products on the internet is that a podcaster can solicit subscriptions from listeners, so that when new podcasts are released, they can automatically be delivered, or fed, to a subscriber's computer or mobile device.

AECT in 2006 (PDF)

Podcasting, a portmanteau of Apple's "iPod" and "broadcasting", is a method of publishing files to the Internet, allowing users to subscribe to a feed and receive new files automatically by subscription, usually at no cost. It first became popular in late 2004, used largely for audio files.

The University of Minnesota in 2006

  1. A podcast is a media file (such as audio or video files) that is downloadable from the Internet. These can then be played back on a computer or be copied to and played by portable audio/video player (e.g. iPod). Video podcasts are also known as "vodcasts."
  2. A key feature that distinguishes a podcast from other media files that can be downloaded or streamed is the ability for end users to download the podcast automatically using software that reads RSS or Atom feeds.
  3. The term "podcast" is both a noun and a verb. As a noun it refers to the file that is downloaded or streamed; as a verb it refers to the process or method of delivering the file.

Yaro Starak in 2005

The word “podcasting” is a portmanteau combining the words “broadcasting” and “iPod.” In case you have had your head in the sand recently or don’t keep up with popular technology an iPod is a portable music player produced by Apple Computers. Apple was lucky/smart enough that their brand was wrapped into a term for a new technology much like the Sony Walkman becoming the popular name for a portable radio/cassette player or inline skates being called “rollerblades”, which is brand name for a company that produced inline skates.

Pew Research in 2006

What is podcasting? In the 2006 State of the News Media, an annual report on American journalism, we provided the following definition:

“Podcasting is a way to distribute audio and video programming over the Web that differs from earlier online audio and video publishing because the material is automatically transferred to the user’s computer and can be consumed at any time, usually on an Apple iPod or another kind of portable digital music player commonly known as an MP3 player.”

This is not a comprehensive list, but it's the relevant hits from the first page of a Google search for "what is a podcast" with a date range of 2005-2006. RSS is brought up (most explicitly by the University of Minnesota page), but these overviews tend to focus more on the type of content and the ability to subscribe to new shows that are automatically delivered to you than on the "open nature of RSS".

The conversation yesterday's article spurred has been really interesting, and thankfully, very reasonable. Like I said then, I don't know if my current argument is the end-all-be-all argument on the matter, but I wanted to explore this idea of getting outside our bubble and consider if we're trying to set something in stone that has been fluid forever.

I'm not suggesting anyone is definitely right or wrong yet, I'm just exploring the idea in public.

Two final things before I go…

One, using the technical distribution and access as what defines a podcast is a really messy way to do this, in my opinion. Is a show that is paid, like Ben Thompson's shows, a podcast? It's an open RSS feed, so sure. What about podcasts that require username/password to access it? Mosts apps don't support this, so is this still a podcast if you need to use specific apps to access it? What if I have an RSS feed, but I request all apps besides Overcast to block users from subscribing? Ok, that last one doesn't really happen, but I'm trying to find the line, which I think is not as black and white as you might want to think.

Two, I raised this question with my wife yesterday and you should have seen the eye roll she gave me when I asked if she thought exclusive shows on Stitcher and Spotify were podcasts. "People actually think they're not???" She was not impressed with my explanation about open RSS feeds.

Spotify Podcasts Are Podcasts

Disclaimer: this is new thinking on my part, and I could be wrong here, but I wanted to make the case while it's fresh in my mind. I'm aware this is not the currently accepted feeling among a lot of people in our niche.

Recently, Stephen Spielberg took a stand against films released on Netflix:

Spielberg firmly believes that Netflix and other companies that release their movies on streaming platforms at the same time they show in theaters should be barred from Academy Awards consideration.

“Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” Spielberg said during an interview with ITV last March. “You certainly, if it’s a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar. I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”

I love Spielberg, and would consider him one of my favorite film directors of all time, but this position makes him seem like a dinosaur. And I wasn't alone in that, the odds are good that you thought that same thing! This is gatekeeping, and I think it's an example of trying to hold onto the past when the future, a future people enjoy, is coming up.

But at least Spielberg's distinction at least calls Netflix films "TV movies" and doesn't deny that they are in fact "movies". The same can not be said for how the tech corner of the internet reacts to podcasts that are distributed via Spotify, Stitcher Premium, or any other proprietary platform. The attitiude from some is that "podcast" is reserved for audio shows that re distributed via RSS feeds that can be used in any app.

Making the defining characteristic of an art form the minutia of its technical distribution feels…off to me.

If I release a movie in theaters through a major stuido, it's a movie. If I release it on Netflix, it's a movie. If I release it on TV, it's a movie. If I release it on Vimeo or YouTube, it's a movie.

If I release a book through a publisher in all book stores around the world, it's a book. If I self-publish on Amazon, it's a book too.

If I release a TV show on braodcast TV (ex. ABC) then it's a TV show. If I release it on cable, it's a TV show. If I release it on a premium cable channel, Hulu, Neflix, or Peacock, it's a TV Show.

If I record an audio show on a regular basis and let people subscribe to it in Apple Podcasts, then it's a podcast. If I record that same show and let people subscribe through Spotify…what is it then? Asked another way, Joe Rogan is currently recording a podcast, and we can all agree that's what it is. When he switches over to Spotify and he keeps doing the same thing, but uploads the file to a different back end, does his art change?

We can argue about how bad form it is for shows to go exclusive to one platform, and we can argue about how we distinguish shows that are available in all apps vs those who are available in specific apps, but to refuse to call these shows "podcasts" at all I feel is blatant gatekeeping that sounds very much like Spielberg's stance, except people taking this stance would probably be calling films on Netflix "long TV shows".

"I prefer podcasts that are distributed via RSS so I can listen in the app of my choice," is a totally valid statement, but what I tend to hear is, "it's not a podcast if I can't subscribe to it from Overcast/Castro/Pocket Casts," which is really starting to rub me the wrong way.

"Open podcasts" and "exclusive podcasts" might make sense as a distintion, but I think that claiming ownership of the word "podcast" is a level of gatekeeping I am finding it hard to stand by.

For what it's worth, I listen to all my podcasts in Castro and don't pay for any premium podcast platforms, nor do I like the idea of shows using these platforms. That said, I'm not currently comfortable banishing these shows from the world of podcasts because they are distributed in a way I don't like.

It’s Just Politics

Opinion | When the Mask You’re Wearing ‘Tastes Like Socialism’ - The New York Times

From the perspective of moral foundations theory, conservatives’ greater concern for purity and fear of contamination would suggest that they would respond more vigorously to a virus than would liberals. This was indeed the case with the Ebola crisis during the Obama Administration when conservative voices often expressed extreme concern about and even fear of Ebola spreading in the United States, while roundly criticizing President Obama’s more measured reaction.

It’s worth noting Ebola claimed 2 lives in the US, and only 4 people contracted it in the US. The Wikipedia article on the topic has multiple paragraphs devoted to all 4 people! About 1,600 people died yesterday from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, which is an improvement from a few weeks ago, if you wanted to compare the scale of these viruses.

Pushing AirPods Too Hard

Kuo: Apple may not include EarPods headphones in iPhone 12 box to boost AirPods sales - 9to5Mac

According to the latest report from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, Apple may not include the wired EarPods headphones in the box of the iPhone 12. This would naturally drive sales of Apple’s second-generation AirPods, as customers would no longer be getting free headphones with their new phones.
Kuo suggests that Apple may heavily promote or discount the AirPods this holiday season, with no new models of AirPods or AirPods Pro expected until 2021.

Oh boy, I can hear people on Twitter already:

“Everyone already has headphones!”

“AirPods are that good, Apple is trying to get you to use something better.”

A conspiracy theory when the iPhone 7 released without a headphone jack was that Apple did it just to force you to buy AirPods. This was an out-there suggestion at the time, but if Apple is removing the Lightning headphones to drive sales of AirPods, well, that’s literally them doing what the theorists said in 2017.

I anticipate a healthy does of “actually…” in response to this post, but if Apple actually does this in the fall, I think it’s a bad look for the company and I don’t think it’s the right thing to do for the customer.

I also can’t help but cringe a little when a company who turned an $11 billion profit in a COVID-19 economy, has a $1.36 trillion market cap, and absolute market dominance with their iconic AirPods, feels the need to take things away from the consumer so they can sell more of that already iconic, flying off the shelves, still growing product.

What Getting Back to Normal Looks Like

Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Finding Normalcy in the Abnormal - The New York Times

Hong Kong has recorded just three locally transmitted cases in the last 30 days. Only four people are reported to have died of Covid-19. The government has loosened social-distancing restrictions, allowing civil servants to go back to work and restaurants to return to full capacity, instead of half.
But that’s not the only reason the virus no longer seems to rule every facet of life here. While fear and anxiety linger, Hong Kongers seem particularly adept at living with those emotions — maybe not embracing this strange new reality, but not recoiling from it either.
That unflappability has struck me sharply during my time here.

This is a good read on what it’s been like getting back to “normal” in Hong Kong has looked like in recent weeks.

Also, I had to check the stats to make sure that was right…4 total deaths among Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people? Per capita, that’s 1/560th as many deaths as here in the US, which is a shockingly different situation.

A Key Under Your Door Mat

Department of Justice Reopens Spat With Apple Over iPhone Encryption - John Gruber

This framing is entirely wrong. This suggests that Apple has the ability to “just unlock” an iPhone encrypted with a passcode or passphrase. They don’t. The difference between 2014 and today isn’t that Apple previously was cooperative with law enforcement requests and now is not — the difference is that modern iPhones can’t be “unlocked” the way older ones could, because the security on modern iPhones is so much better now.

The best comparison I can make is to think of your house having a key under the front mat. Your house gets robbed somewhat regularly because all the bad guys in the neighborhood know your key is there so they let themselves in regularly. The police also know it's there, so when you report a robbery, they like the convenience of having a key under the mat so they can get in and investigate the crime.

If you stop putting a key under your front door mat, the obvious reason would be so that it's much harder for the bad guys to get into your house, not that you "stopped routinely allowing law enforcement officials into" your home to investigate.

Making Control Center and Notifications More Discoverable with a Cursor on the iPad

Making Control Center and Notifications More Discoverable with a Cursor on the iPad

So this is a little janky, but I mocked up a quick idea to make the options to access notifications and Control Center more discoverable when using a cursor. Here's an animated version:

The currnet UI just highlights the date/time or battery/wifi/etc blocks, and clicking on them brings up notifications or Control Center. If you don't know how this works already, you may not even be able to guess which is which, since "what happens when I click the battery icon?" isn't natually answered by either option. 🙃

Apple should spend more than 30 minutes on it and make it prettier. Also, if you decide the menu bar can expand, then you don't need to keep buttons in the same place. Hell, you could even add more things up there if you wanted, so there's quite a bit of iteration to happen here. But this was my first stab at something I hope others will take further.