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Apple’s decision to greenlight an app called HKmaps, which is being used by pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong to crowdsource information about street closures and police presence, is attracting the ire of the Chinese government.

An article in Chinese state mouthpiece, China Daily, attacks the iPhone maker for reversing an earlier decision not to allow the app to be listed on the iOS App Store — claiming the app is “allowing the rioters in Hong Kong to go on violent acts” (via The Guardian).

HKmaps uses emoji to denote live police and protest activity around Hong Kong, as reported by users.

The former British colony is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China that’s been able to maintain certain economic and and political freedoms since reunification with China — under the one country, two systems principle. But earlier this year pro-democracy protests broke out after the Hong Kong government sought to pass legislation that would allow for extradition to mainland China. It’s policing around those on-going protests that’s being made visible on HKmaps.

The app’s developer denies the map enables illegal activity, saying its function is “for info” purposes only — to allow residents to move freely around the city by being able to avoid protest flash-points. But the Chinese government is branding it “toxic”.

“Business is business, and politics is politics. Nobody wants to drag Apple into the lingering unrest in Hong Kong. But people have reason to assume that Apple is mixing business with politics, and even illegal acts. Apple has to think about the consequences of its unwise and reckless decision,” the China Daily writer warns in a not-so-veiled threat about continued access to the Chinese market.

“Providing a gateway for ‘toxic apps’ is hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, twisting the facts of Hong Kong affairs, and against the views and principles of the Chinese people,” it goes on. “Apple and other corporations should be able to discern right from wrong. They also need to know that only the prosperity of China and China’s Hong Kong will bring them a broader and more sustainable market.”

The article takes further aim at Apple — claiming it reinstated a song which advocates for independence for Hong Kong and had previously been removed from its music store.

We’ve reached out to Apple for comment.

A few days ago the company was getting flak from the other direction as Western commentators piled on to express incredulity over its decision, at the app review stage, not to allow HKmaps on its store. The app’s developer said Apple App Store reviewers had rejected it citing the reasoning as “the app allowed users to evade law enforcement”.

Yet, as many pointed out at the time, the Google-owned Waze app literally describes its function as “avoid police” if you take the trouble to read its iOS listing. So it looked like a crystal-clear case of double standards by Cupertino. And, most awkwardly for Apple, as if the US tech giant was siding with the Chinese state against Hong Kong as concerned residents fight for their autonomy and call for democracy.

We asked Apple about its decision to reject the app at the App Store review stage last week. It did not provide any comment but a couple of days afterwards a spokesman pointed us to an “update” — where the developer tweeted that the iOS version was “Approved, comming soon!” [sic].

At the time of writing the iOS app remains available on the App Store but the episode highlights the tricky trade-offs Apple is facing by operating in the Chinese market — a choice that risks denting its reputation for highly polished corporate values.

The size of the China market is such that just “economical deceleration” can — and has — put a serious dent in Apple’s bottom line. If the company were to exit — or be ejected — from the market entirely there would be no way for it to cushion the blow for shareholders. Yet with a premium brand so bound up with ethical claims to champion and defend fundamental human rights like privacy Apple risks being pinned between a rock and a hard place as an increasingly powerful China flexes more political and economic muscle.

Wider trade tensions between the US and China are also creating further instability, causing major operating headaches for Chinese tech giant Huawei — with the Trump administration pressuring allies to freeze it out of 5G networks and leaning on US companies not to provide services to Chinese firms (leading to question marks over whether Huawei’s smartphones can continue using Google’s Android OS, and suggestions it might seek to deploy its own OS).

The going is certainly getting tougher for tech businesses working from East to West. But it also remains to be seen how sustainable Apple’s West-to-East democratic balancing act can be given heightened and escalating geopolitical tensions.

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That Apple has used its App Store to offer itself a competitive advantage is nothing new. TechCrunch and others have been reporting on this problem for years, including those times when Apple chose to display its apps in the No. 1 position on the Top Charts, for example, or when it stole some of the App Store’s best ideas for its own, banned apps that competed with iOS features or positioned its apps higher than competitors in search. Now, in the wake of antitrust investigations in the U.S. and abroad, as well as various anti-competitive lawsuits, Apple has adjusted the App Store’s algorithm so fewer of its own apps would appear at the top of the search results.

The change was reported by The New York Times on Monday, which presented Apple with a lengthy analysis of app rankings.

It even found that some searches for various terms would display as many as 14 Apple-owned apps before showing any results from rivals. Competitors could only rank higher if they paid for an App Store search ad, the report noted.

That’s a bad look for Apple, which has recently been trying to distance itself and its App Store from any anti-competitive accusations.

In May, for example, Apple launched a new App Store website designed to demonstrate how it welcomes competition from third-party apps. The site showed that for every Apple built-in app, there were competitors available throughout the App Store.

But availability in the store and discoverability by consumers are two different things.

Apple admitted to the NYT that for over a year many common searches on the App Store would return Apple’s own apps, even when the Apple apps were less popular or relevant at times. The company explained the algorithm wasn’t manipulated to do so. For the most part, Apple said its own apps ranked higher because they’re more popular and because they come up in search results for many common terms. The company additionally said that one feature of the app’s algorithm would sometimes group apps by their maker, which gave Apple’s own apps better rankings than expected.


Above: via the NYT, the average number of Apple apps that returned at the top of the search results by month

Apple said it adjusted the algorithm in July to make it seem like Apple’s own apps weren’t receiving special treatment. According to the NYT, both Apple VP Philip Schiller, who oversees the App Store, and SVP Eddy Cue, who oversees many of Apple’s apps, confirmed that these changes have not fully fixed the problem.

The issue, as Apple explains it, is that its own apps are so popular that it had to tweak its algorithm to pretend they are not. Whether or not this is true can’t be independently verified, however, as Apple doesn’t allow any visibility into metrics like searches, downloads or active users.

Maybe it’s time for Apple’s apps to exit the App Store?

The report, along with the supposed ineffectiveness of the algorithm’s changes, begs the question as to whether Apple’s apps should show up in the App Store’s charts and search results at all, and if so, how.

To be fair, this is a question that’s not limited to Apple. Google today is facing the same problem. Recently, the CEO of a popular software program, Basecamp, called Google’s paid search ads a “shakedown,” arguing that the only way his otherwise No. 1 search result can rank at the top of the search results page is to buy an ad. Meanwhile, his competitors can do so — even using his brand name as the keyword to bid against.

The same holds true for the App Store, but on a smaller scale than the entirety of the web. That also makes Apple’s problem easier to solve.

For example, Apple could simply choose to offer a dedicated section for its own software downloads, and leave the App Store as the home for third-party software alone.

This sort of change could help to eliminate concerns over Apple’s anti-competitive behavior in the search results and chart rankings. Apple might balk against this solution, saying that users should have an easy way to locate and download its own apps, and the App Store is the place to do that. But the actual marketplace itself could be left to the third-party software while the larger App Store app — which today includes a variety of app-related content, including app reviews, interviews with developers, app tips and a subscription gaming service, Apple Arcade — could still be used to showcase Apple-produced software.

It could just do so outside the actual marketplace.

Here’s how this could work. If users wanted to re-install an Apple app they had deleted or download one that didn’t come pre-installed on their device, they could be directed to a special Apple software download page. Pointers to this page could be in the App Store app itself as well as in the iOS Settings.

An ideal spot for this section could even be on the existing Search page of the App Store.

With a redesign, Apple could offer a modified search screen where users could optionally check a box to return a list of apps results that would come only from Apple. This would indicate intentional behavior on the consumer’s part. That is, they are directly seeking an Apple software download — as opposed to the current situation where a user searches for “Music” and sees Apple’s own music app appear above all the others from rivals like Spotify and Pandora.

Alternately, Apple could just list its own apps on this page or offer a link to this dedicated page from the search screen.

And these are just a few variations on a single idea. There are plenty of other ways the App Store could be adjusted to be less anti-competitive, too.

As another example, Apple could also include the “You Might Also Like” section in its own apps’ App Store listings, as it does for all third-party apps.

ImageAbove: Apple Music’s App Store Listing

This section directs users to other apps that match the same search query right within the app’s detail page. Apple’s own apps, however, only include a “More by Apple” section. That means it’s keeping all the search traffic and consumer interest for itself.


Above: Spotify’s App Store Listing

Or it could reduce the screen space dedicated to its own apps in the search results — even if they rank higher — in order to give more attention to apps from competitors while still being able to cater to users who were truly in search of Apple’s software.

But ultimately, how Apple will have to behave with regard to its App Store may be left to the regulators to decide, given Apple’s failure to bake this sort of anti-competitive thinking into its App Store design.

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Apples announcement that it is to close the software is a reminder of its role in reconciling music and the internet

Last Monday, at Apples Worldwide Developers Conference, the companys head of software engineering, Craig Federighi, announced that it was terminating iTunes. In one way, the only surprising thing was that Apple had taken so long to reach that decision. Its been obvious for years that iTunes had become baroquely bloated, a striking anomaly for a company that prides itself on elegant and functional design. So the decision to split the software into three functional units dealing with music, podcasts and TV apps seemed both logical and long overdue. But for internet users dun certain ge (including this columnist) the announcement triggered reflections on personal and tech history.

Theres been music on the internet for a long time. The advent of the compact disc in the early 1980s meant that recorded music went from being analogue to digital. But CD music files were vast a single CD came in at about 700MB and for most people, the network was slow. So transferring music from one location to another was not a practical proposition. But then, in 1993, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany came up with a way of shrinking audio files by a factor of 10 or more, so that a three-minute music track could be reduced to 3MB without much perceptible loss in quality. They called their new standard MP3 and in July 1994, released the first MP3 encoder, software that could take in CD tracks and compress them using the MP3 filter.

This was a pivotal moment for the music industry, but it took another five years for that penny to drop. In that time, music-loving geeks everywhere had ripped all of their CDs using MP3 encoders and were storing their music on hard drives. (I remember having to buy a bigger and ferociously expensive hard drive to house my collection.)

And then in 1999, a teenage geek named Shawn Fanning created a neat software system that enabled internet users who had MP3 tracks on their PCs not only to find others with similar assets but also to exchange these tracks with one another. Fanning called his file-sharing system Napster, released it on the internet and in the process changed the world. By the time the music industry managed to get Napster shut down in 2001, it had acquired upwards of 60 million users and virtually every track that had ever been recorded was available free on the internet, which had now become, as someone once put it, the celestial jukebox in the sky.

The problem was that most of these tracks were copyrighted and so much of what was going on was wholesale piracy. But the music industrys vanquishing of Napster turned out to be a pyrrhic victory: the genie had escaped from the bottle. Dozens of filesharing systems had come into being and the record business found itself facing an existential threat.

What it should have done was create a slick online system that would enable law-abiding citizens to pay for music tracks. But this apparently lay beyond the capacity of an industry driven by executives with analogue mindsets and incentivised only to sell physical objects called CDs.

Their ineptitude created the kind of vacuum that capitalism abhors. And into it strode an entrepreneur who saw in the music industrys incompetence the commercial opportunity of a lifetime. His name was Steve Jobs.

iTunes was his vehicle for exploiting the opportunity. Based on SoundJam MP, a program that Jobs had acquired in 2000 and treated to an Apple makeover, it was launched early in 2001. From the outset, it was a revelation: nicely designed, functional software that made it easy to upload, organise and play ones digitised music even if one were a complete newbie. And then in April 2003, Apple added the iTunes store to it, which made it easy to buy and download tracks legally.

It didnt stop online piracy overnight, but it did open up the promise of a celestial jukebox for anyone who believed that its better to pay for stuff. Which, in the end, turned out to be a lot of people. So, in a way, you could say that iTunes rescued the record industry from its own incompetence. But it also gave Apple a chokehold on a colossal market.

Music played an outsize role in the evolution of the internet. As Larry Lessig put in Free Culture: Filesharing music was the crack cocaine of the internets growth. It drove demand for access to the internet more powerfully than any other single application. Jobs became the first licensed dealer in that drug and iTunes provided the saddle that enabled Apple to ride the tiger.

But over the years, the company piled more and more functions on to the software until it came to resemble something that Microsoft would have designed in the old days. And we switched to wanting music on tap rather than in electronic containers, as David Bowie predicted in 2002. It should have been re-engineered years ago. But at least that penny has finally dropped. iTunes is dead; long live music.

What Im reading

Stick it to the cyberman
Robots coming for your job? No, your employers are, according to a sharp essay by Brian Merchant on Gizmodo, exploding the narrative that lets companies off the hook for automation.

Fighting the fake
Facebook and the fake Nancy Pelosi video: read an intelligent discussion of the issues by Laura Hazard Owen at the online home of Harvards Nieman Journalism Lab.

Ross Anderson and his colleagues in the Security Group of Cambridges Computer Laboratory have published a landmark study on their Light Blue Touchpaper site of whats changed (and hasnt) in the cost of cybercrime since 2012.

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Tim Cook will announce separate apps for music, TV and podcasts, according to reports

It was once heralded as a possible saviour of the music industry in the digital age, famously annoyed fans by forcing a U2 album on them, and its 20,699-word terms and conditions have even inspired a graphic novel, but now Apple is to replace its iTunes download service.

According to a report by Bloomberg, the tech company will announce that three separate apps for music, TV and podcasts will supersede iTunes, as Apple seeks to reposition itself as an entertainment service rather than a hardware company powered by products such as the iPhone.

The move is expected to be part of the keynote address by the Apple chief executive, Tim Cook, at the companys Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California, which starts on Monday and will focus on software updates and Apples new approach to apps.

Steve Jobs gives his keynote address on the opening day of Apple Expo in Paris in 2003. Photograph: Vladimir Sichov/EPA

Launched on 9 January 2001, iTunes was Steve Jobss then revolutionary platform for music storage, where users could rip their CDs into digital form. In 2003 the iTunes Store added the ability to buy tracks legally rather than using popular peer-to-peer file sharing sites such as Napster, which had arrived in 1999.

The attraction of Napster was not just that it was free, but more importantly, it gave people a way to connect with pretty much any piece of music, the former Warner Music vice-president Paul Vidich told Rolling Stone in 2013. What Steve was doing with iTunes was to replicate that type of experience a vast catalogue, available on a singles basis, with a convenient interface. It had to be easier than Napster.

Although other companies including Microsoft and Sony had considered launching music stores, they werent companies that had demonstrated Apples sophistication with regard to software, according to Vidich. It really took a company that was able to bridge those two things and come up with an attractive consumer product.

But in the ephemeral world of tech, iTunes and its use of downloads quickly became old-fashioned as companies including Spotify introduced successful streaming models as musics most radically democratic era began.

Launching in 2008, Spotify offered unlimited ad-free access to its catalogue of music for a fee (now 9.99 a month for its premium service). The company claims to have 217 million users worldwide with 100 million paid subscribers to the service. In comparison, Apple Music has approximately 56 million paid subscribers worldwide.

There was a period when iTunes looked like it could still be the future. In December 2013, it scored a huge success when Beyoncs eponymous fifth album sold 828,773 copies on the iTunes Store in the first few days of its surprise release. I didnt want to release my music the way Ive done it, Beyonc said in a statement. I am bored with that. I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans.

But two years later the singer and a long list of other pop stars including Madonna and Kanye West would help to launch Tidal, her husband Jay Zs Spotify and iTunes competitor. Even though Tidal has since struggled, the streaming model has proved to be the most robust digital music service as downloads have declined. In December 2016, physical sales bolstered by a revival in vinyl overtook digital downloads with 2.4m spent in one week compared with the 2.1m made from digital music purchases.

In 2014, a marketing stunt, in which U2s album Songs of Innocence was automatically added to 500 million users iTunes accounts, backfired when customers complained at not having a choice over whether it was included on their device. U2s lead singer, Bono, apologised a month later.

The writing seemed to be on the wall for iTunes when the tech company launched Apple Music in 2015, with rumours circulating that iTunes would not exist beyond 2020.

A streaming service in a similar mould to Spotify, Apple Music signalled a move away from a download model, and arrived at the same time as the companys radio service, which featured regular shows from DJs such as Zane Lowe, Drake and the Louis Vuitton menswear artistic director Virgil Abloh, as well as artists including Nicki Minaj and Elton John.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian.

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Apple is working to combine its tracking apps “Find My iPhone” and “Find My Friends” into one unified app available on both iOS and Mac, according to a new report from the Apple news site 9to5Mac. In addition, the report says, Apple is developing a hardware product that can be attached to other items that Apple customers want to track — similar to what the Bluetooth tracker Tile offers today.

The idea is the new, unified app would then serve as a way to track anything — Apple devices, other important items like a handbag or backpack, as well as the location of family members and trusted friends. And all of this information would be securely synced to iCloud.

Meanwhile, the new hardware — codenamed “B389,” the report says — would represent a threat to Tile and other Bluetooth trackers on the market, as Apple would be able to capitalize on its massive install base of iPhones and other Apple devices to develop its own crowdsourced tracking-and-finding network.

The new hardware tag will be paired to a user’s iCloud account and users will be able to receive notifications when a device, like their iPhone, gets too far away from the tag. Users will also be able to configure locations to be ignored, and can opt to share a tag’s location with friends or family.

And like Tile, when the item with the tag attached goes missing, users could then put the tag into a “Lost” mode that would alert the owner when it’s found. The “finding” takes place by way of a crowdsourced network that includes every other Apple device owner who’s opted in to use this same tracking service, it would seem.

A large crowdsourced network is today one of Tile’s key advantages.

To date, the company has sold 24 million Tiles, which now connect to 4 million items daily with a 90 percent success rate, thanks to its own community-find feature. A competitive product from Apple could eat away at Tile’s business, while also serving as a new source of device revenue for Apple — and perhaps subscription revenues, too, for access to the crowd-finding network.

The reported merger of Apple’s two tracking applications comes at a time when Apple is rethinking how it wants to position its apps. Another recent report from 9to5Mac had confirmed Apple’s plans to break up iTunes, and instead bring new Music, podcasts and TV apps to Mac users. Apple will revamp its Books app as part of these changes, too, the report said.

It’s worth noting that there’s a big leak at Apple right now, and 9to5Mac is benefiting.

In addition to the news about the unified apps, Tile-like tracker and the breakup of iTunes, the site also leaked a big preview of iOS 13, which is said to include a system-wide dark mode, new gestures, visual changes and more. And just yesterday, the site reported that Apple is working on a feature that will allow users to pair a Mac with an iPad to use as a secondary display — something offered today by companies like Luna Display or Duet Display.

As for the new, unified “Find My…” app and hardware tag, no timeline to a public release is yet known.

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