Apple left with egg on its FaceTime

Apple is busy containing the fall out after it emerged FaceTime has a major bug that allows callers to eavesdrop on recipients, even if they don’t pick up. 9to5Mac broke the story:

The bug lets you call anyone with FaceTime, and immediately hear the audio coming from their phone — before the person on the other end has accepted or rejected the incoming call. Apple says the issue will be addressed in a software update “later this week”.

Naturally, this poses a pretty privacy problem as you can essentially listen in on any iOS user, although it still rings like normal, so you can’t be 100% covert about it. Nevertheless, there is no indication on the recipient’s side that you could hear any of their audio.

Axios’ Ina Fried noticed that Apple seems to have disabled the group function on FaceTime, which is where the flaw lies. That come ahead of a planned fix that will be pushed out some time in the next few days:

Any flaw with Apple is a big story, more so than most other firms – much to Cupertino’s annoyance, privately.

But this particular cock-up is given added energy thanks to Apple’s posturing on privacy. Indeed, it comes on National Privacy Day. Here’s what Tim Cook had to say before the flaw story broke:

Oh, and it comes less than a month after this:

British kids turned off by Facebook, but, obviously…

Worrying news for Facebook as a study by UK media regulator Ofcom suggests young people are using Facebook less often. My colleague Chris Fox, writing for BBC News:

Its report suggests 72% of 12- to 15-year-olds with a social media account use Facebook, down from 74% in 2017.

But, you can’t have a Facebook downturn story without:

But Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, gained popularity. In 2018, 23% named it as their main social network, up from 14% in 2017.

There are some great stats in that piece, so I urge you to read it in full. Most poignantly, I think, is the percentage of parents who feel the benefits of using social media outweigh the downsides. Just over half (54%) now think that – down from 67% in 2014.

The views of parents matter when it comes to how often kids are exposed to technology. Millennial parents will not repeat the willful ignorance approach when it comes to technology, I’m sure of it.

We’ll find out if any of these findings correlate to Facebook as a whole on Wednesday when its announces its quarterly earnings.

Daytime TV 2.0

This week, the first episode of Nine Months with Courtney Cox, a new Facebook Watch docuseries, attracted less than 500k views.

I guess it just couldn’t compete with Slippery Ice Fails.

150m views. Good grief. Facebook will never compete with Netflix, and it’s falling behind in attracting top talent compared to YouTube.

But what it can do quite easily is become the online home of mindless daytime TV. And you know what? That’s a niche that many want filling.

Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram: will it blend?

Mike Isaac at the New York Times reports that Mark Zuckerberg plans to unite his three biggest services into one core infrastructure. It would mean a message sent from WhatsApp could go into Messenger, or a DM in Instagram… or something along those lines, at least.

It’s a controversial move, not least within Facebook where it is said to have been one of the factors that prompted the founders of both WhatsApp and Instagram to leave the company. The rank-and-file seems upset too:

More recently, dozens of WhatsApp employees clashed with Mr. Zuckerberg over the integration plan on internal message boards and during a contentious staff meeting in December, according to four people who attended or were briefed on the event.

Zuckerberg can also expect heavy external criticism from lawmakers that will see this as definitive evidence that Facebook is an immovable social media monopoly:

The two sides of US politics don’t agree on much. But when it comes to how to handle a problem like Facebook, mumbles over monopoly concerns have lately turned to roars.

Here’s a flashback to Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing last May, as told by Quartz:

A frustrated [Linsday Graham, Republican Senator] cut him off. “If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product I can go sign up for?” he said. “I’m talking about real competition you face … I’m not talking about categories.”

The Facebook CEO weaved around the question, citing a statistic that “the average American uses eight different apps to communicate with their friends and stay in touch.” Graham finally stated the question on many people’s minds.

“You don’t think you have a monopoly?” he asked.

“It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” Zuckerberg responded, to some laughter in the room.

The simplest way to knock Facebook down a peg or two would be to force the company to break out Instagram and WhatsApp into separate companies, just as they were before. Today, that looks like a clean break.

But if Facebook manages to merge the three services, with a central platform, it can make a stronger argument that spinning out the apps would not be straightforward at all. It isn’t three products, Zuckerberg could argue. It’s just one you can access in a variety of ways.

As we ponder Zuckerberg’s strategy, it’s perhaps telling that his first major change to Facebook post-scandals is arguably not intended not to solve its problems, but to protect its power.

Zuckerberg answers alternative allegations

A lot of words, sure, but not much said: Mark Zuckerberg has written this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. It’ll be in print on Friday.

Here’s an excerpt that caught my eye:

Another question is whether we leave harmful or divisive content up because it drives engagement. We don’t. People consistently tell us they don’t want to see this content. Advertisers don’t want their brands anywhere near it. The only reason bad content remains is because the people and artificial-intelligence systems we use to review it are not perfect—not because we have an incentive to ignore it. Our systems are still evolving and improving.

I don’t think anyone has credibly accused Facebook of this, actually.

Rather, people (correctly) state that Facebook – through algorithms that are designed to reward engagement – promotes posts that have got a lot of people clicking or commenting. That formula breeds the spread of divisive posts, whether it’s about Donald Trump or the colour of a dress.

Facebook seems to be developing a habit of answering allegations by first subtly altering the specifics of the complaint.

Tin foil hat time: as I’m writing this, we’re awaiting some likely-negative news to drop about Facebook. Is the company trying to seize the news agenda? It’ll need something a bit more substantial than this, if so.

DeepMind has mastered StarCraft

Alphabet’s DeepMind has beaten a top pro at StarCraft II. Wired reports:

After months of training, the Alphabet-owned AI firm’s AlphaStar program is now capable of playing a full game of StarCraft II against a professional human player – and winning. It might sound frivolous, but mastering a game as complex as StarCraft is a major technological leap for DeepMind’s AI brains.

Now, my initial reaction to this was: so what? We’ve seen DeepMind create an AI that beat top players at games before, a journey that started with it learning how to play, and get unbeatably good at, Pong.

Thankfully, James Temperton at Wired explains why exactly this latest bit of gaming matters:

While conquering Pong required understanding a relatively small number of basic actions, mastering StarCraft was many orders more complex. Around 300 basic in-game actions branch out into millions of possible counter-actions, all of which the AI has to understand in the blink of an eye.

Now, 18 months after work started, DeepMind has mastered StarCraft. So how did it do it? The DeepMind team has claimed a number of algorithmic and engineering breakthroughs. From game theory to working with imperfect information and mastering long term planning, the AlphaStar system had to grapple with a complex and unpredictable world.

I strongly recommend reading the full piece.

‘I’m With Them’ provides resource for those harassed at work

If 2018 was about exposing grotesque wrongdoing, here’s hoping 2019 can be about putting systems in place minimise the chance of workplace harassment happening again.

Today, a site called I’m With Them launched. Axios’ Ina Fried explained how it works in her (excellent) morning newsletter:

– People register with I’m With Them, which works with a third-party service to authenticate the identity of those reporting misconduct.

– They report what happened to them and who perpetrated the action.

– If reports reach a “critical mass” around a perpetrator, the site shares the victims’ emails with one another.

The site was made by a husband and wife team: Scott McGregor, former CEO of semiconducter giant Broadcom and his wife, Laurie Girand. Girand has a strong record of consumer and victim advocacy.

This isn’t just for the tech industry, but you can see how it has been built with some high profile tech cases in mind. In the sweep of venture capitalists swept up in the #metoo movement, it was clear that one of the reasons they were able to get away with their behaviour was because the women involved were isolated, working at different firms in different cities, perhaps even different countries.

I’m With Them, if successful, is a step towards solving that problem – a chance for victims to share their experiences, privately.

Apple lays off over 200 from Project Titan autonomous vehicle group

Apple has “dismissed” 200 people working on Project Titan, the firm’s car unit. CNBC has the scoop.

Apple spokesperson:

We have an incredibly talented team working on autonomous systems and associated technologies at Apple. As the team focuses their work on several key areas for 2019, some groups are being moved to projects in other parts of the company, where they will support machine learning and other initiatives, across all of Apple.

The idea that Apple is “working on a car” has always seemed a little off to me. It just didn’t make sense for the firm. What would they be solving?

But software – that’s another matter. CarPlay, with all the services it can carry, has big, immediate potential.

As Apple makes its move deeper into services vs hardware – as evidenced by its TV partnerships announced at CES – we can expect cars to be a major part of that. Why try and build a Mercedes when you can just power it instead?

We might not ever be able to drive an Apple car, but we’ll certainly be driving with Apple.

Mark Zuckerberg fed Jack Dorsey some cold goat

Rolling Stone has an interview with Jack Dorsey. They asked him about his relationship with Mark Zuckerberg:

What was your most memorable encounter with Zuckerberg?
Well, there was a year when he was only eating what he was killing. He made goat for me for dinner. He killed the goat.

In front of you?
No. He killed it before. I guess he kills it. He kills it with a laser gun and then the knife. Then they send it to the butcher.

A . . . laser gun?
I don’t know. A stun gun. They stun it, and then he knifed it. Then they send it to a butcher. Evidently in Palo Alto there’s a rule or regulation that you can have six livestock on any lot of land, so he had six goats at the time. I go, “We’re eating the goat you killed?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Have you eaten goat before?” He’s like, “Yeah, I love it.” I’m like, “What else are we having?” “Salad.” I said, “Where is the goat?” “It’s in the oven.” Then we waited for about 30 minutes. He’s like, “I think it’s done now.” We go in the dining room. He puts the goat down. It was cold. That was memorable. I don’t know if it went back in the oven. I just ate my salad.

It’s hard to find a metaphor in that.
I don’t know what you’re going to do with that, but hopefully that’s not the headline. Revenge is a dish best served warm. Or cold.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone described the piece as “An interview that finally shines a little light on what @jack is actually like”. And so, it seems fair to draw a few conclusions. One, Jack thinks he’s still a punk:

Can you be punk rock and be who you are right now? Is that really possible?
Can I be that today? Yeah, I think so. I hope so. I think we need different takes on life. There’s a number of people who might come from a similar background as I did and be a little bit weird or odd or whatnot and see me as being weird and odd and extra: “Yeah, if you can do it, I can do it.”

Second, he seems to hold Zuckerberg, and his company, with at the very least a small level of contempt. Aptly enough for a man who invented Twitter, he says an awful lot with this short sentence:

I see Mark as a very, very smart businessman. He will excel to gain as much market share as possible.

And third, he makes a great defense of Elon Musk. Note the difference in tone in how he describes his admiration for Musk as a person, rather than simply a businessman:

He is ridiculous. You have to be. You have to be to think that big. I love him. I love what he’s trying to do, and I want to help in whatever way. I have a friend who’s a music producer. I asked him, “What got you into music?” He said, “I’ve never been able to play music. I don’t even really know if I have good taste. I love musicians, and all I want to do is help them.” I feel a similar kind of understanding of Elon. I understand what he wants to do, and I want to help. That’s the role of any toolmaker. We’re making tools.