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I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Computers Hat

I needed a hat.

I didn’t want an attention-grabbing design, but I’m not boring enough to wear a blank hat. (And I’m really boring.)

Normal people wear hats displaying the logos of the sports teams or companies or places they care about. But I don’t care about sports, I don’t feel that strongly about New York, and I don’t like most companies enough to be a billboard for them on my head.

So I had to ask myself: What do I really, truly care about that would be appropriate on a hat?

Apple? Sure. But I’ve already gone through two Apple hats.

The internet? Well, we have a love/hate relationship.

What transcends it all?

Bingo.

If Google’s right about AI, that’s a problem for Apple

Before the iPhone, RIM’s BlackBerry was the king of smartphones. They seemed unstoppable, because by most accounts, they were the best and most successful at what most smartphones were for at the time: email and phone calls.

When the iPhone came out, the BlackBerry continued to do well for a little while. But the iPhone had completely changed the game — it changed what smartphones were for, from basic business-focused email devices to entire consumer personal computers with desktop-class operating systems and rich app ecosystems.

The BlackBerry’s success came to an end not because RIM started releasing worse smartphones, but because the new job of the smartphone shifted almost entirely outside of their capabilities, and it was too late to catch up. RIM hadn’t spent years building a world-class operating system, or a staff full of great designers, or expertise in mass production of luxury-quality consumer electronics, or amazing APIs and developer tools, or an app store with millions of users with credit cards already on file, or all of the other major assets that Apple had developed over a decade (or longer) that enabled the iPhone.

No new initiative, management change, or acquisition in 2007 could’ve saved the BlackBerry. It was too late, and the gulf was too wide.

Today, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are placing large bets on advanced AI, ubiquitous assistants, and voice interfaces, hoping that these will become the next thing that our devices are for.

If they’re right — and that’s a big “if” — I’m worried for Apple.

Today, Apple’s being led properly day-to-day and doing very well overall. But if the landscape shifts to prioritize those big-data AI services, Apple will find itself in a similar position as BlackBerry did almost a decade ago: what they’re able to do, despite being very good at it, won’t be enough anymore, and they won’t be able to catch up.

Amazon, Facebook, and Google — especially Google — have all invested heavily in big-data web services and AI for many years, prioritizing them highly, iterating and advancing them constantly, accumulating relevant data, developing effective algorithms, and attracting, developing, and retaining tons of specialized talent.

Saying Apple is “bad at services” in general isn’t accurate — they’re very good at services that move data around in relatively straightforward ways at a very large scale, such as iMessage, push notifications, and the majority of iCloud.

Where Apple suffers is big-data services and AI, such as search, relevance, classification, and complex natural-language queries.1 Apple can do rudimentary versions of all of those, but their competitors — again, especially Google — are far ahead of them, and the gap is only widening.

And Apple is showing worryingly few signs of meaningful improvement or investment in these areas. Apple’s apparent inaction shows that they’re content with their services’ quality, management, performance, advancement, and talent acquisition and retention. And they may be right — they may be fine.

But if Google’s right, there’s no quick fix. It won’t be enough to buy Siri’s creators again or partner with Yelp for another few years. If Apple needs strong AI and big-data services in the next decade to remain competitive, they need to have already been developing that talent and those assets, in-house, extensively, for years. They need to be a big-data-services company. Their big-data AI services need to be far better, smarter, and more reliable than they are.

And I just don’t see that happening. Becoming a major big-data AI services company doesn’t happen completely in secret and suddenly get released to the world, completed, in a keynote. It’s a massive undertaking, spanning many years, many people, and a lot of noticeable interaction with the world. It’s easier to conceal the development of an entire car than a major presence in AI and services.

Google is extremely well-placed for where they think the puck is going. They could be wrong — these AI services could be a socially awkward fad like Google Glass or a tonedeaf annoyance like Clippy. Google launches a lot of weird, geeky, technologically impressive things that go nowhere.

If Google is wrong, and computing continues to be defined by a tightly controlled grid of siloed apps that you poke a thousand times a day on a smooth rectangle of manufacturing excellence, Apple is fine. They’re doing a great job of what computing is today, and what it will probably continue to be for a long time.

But if Google is right, that’s a big problem for Apple.

This was originally titled “Avoiding BlackBerry’s fate”, but I changed it to better reflect my angle of “If this happens, it’s bad,” rather than “This is what will definitely happen.”


  1. “Privacy” isn’t a very good excuse. It’s possible to build tons of useful services and smarts by just using public data, like the web, mapping databases, business directories, etc., without any access to or involvement from the user’s private data. Even more enhanced functionality can be done with the limited set of personal data that Siri already uses, such as location and contacts. Google and others do these sorts of non-creepy or less-creepy services far better than Apple, too — not just the creepy ones. ↩︎

Doing the job

Being the U.S. President is a multifaceted, incredibly important, unimaginably difficult job that places huge demands on temperament, judgment, foresight, resiliency, and diplomacy (both domestically and internationally). Politics aside, that’s the real job. All day, every day.

I don’t agree with all of Barack Obama’s politics, words, or decisions, but he has performed extremely well at actually doing the job every day for nearly eight years.

That’s far more important than minor political differences. Given the choice between someone who can actually do the everyday job well whose politics I don’t agree with, or a complete buffoon who tells me what I want to hear, I’m better off with the former, whether I know it or not.

And this is why I’m voting for Hillary Clinton this fall. I’m not her biggest fan, but she’s the only major candidate this year who I believe will do the actual job well — and probably very well.

*  *  *

Tim Cook has been under a lot of scrutiny and received a lot of criticism recently, much of which is warranted.

Being the CEO of one of the world’s biggest, highest profile, most scrutinized, and most important publicly-traded companies is a multifaceted, incredibly important, unimaginably difficult job that places huge demands on temperament, judgment, foresight, resiliency, and diplomacy (both publicly and privately).

Cook excels at doing the job. And while he’s not always doing everything exactly the way I’d like, I can’t help but agree with Apple’s former CEO, who also wasn’t perfect, that Cook is the best person for the job today.

Apple’s actual role in podcasting: be careful what you wish for

This New York Times article gets a lot wrong, and both podcast listeners and podcast producers should be clear on Apple’s actual role in podcasting today and what, exactly, big producers are asking for.

Podcasts work nothing like the App Store, and we’re all better off making sure they never head down that road.

Podcasts still work like old-school blogs:

It’s completely decentralized, free, fair, open, and uncontrollable by any single entity, as long as the ecosystem of podcast-player apps remains diverse enough that no app can dictate arbitrary terms to publishers (the way Facebook now effectively controls the web publishing industry).1

Apple holds two large roles in podcasting today that should threaten its health, but haven’t yet:

Critically, despite having these large roles, Apple never locked out other players, dictated almost any terms to podcasters,2 or inserted themselves as an intermediary beyond the directory stage.

Like most of the iTunes Store, the podcast functionality has been almost completely unchanged since its introduction over a decade ago. And unlike the rest of the Store, we’re all better off if it stays this way.

Distribution

Apple’s directory gives podcast players the direct RSS feed of podcasts found there, and then the players just fetch directly from the publisher’s feeds from that point forward. Apple is no longer a party to any activity after the search unless you’re using Apple’s player app.

There’s nothing stopping anyone else from making their own directory (a few have), and any good podcast player will let users bypass directories and subscribe to any podcast in the world by pasting in its URL.

Promotion

Apple’s editorial features are unparalleled in the industry. I don’t know of anyone who applies more human curation to podcasts than Apple.

The algorithmic “top” charts, as far as podcasters have been able to piece together, are based primarily (or solely) on the rate of new subscriptions to a podcast in Apple Podcasts for iOS and iTunes for Mac.

Subscriptions happening in other apps have no effect on Apple’s promotional charts because, as long as this remains decentralized and open, Apple has no way of knowing about them.

Playback

Apple’s Podcasts app for iOS is fine, but not great, leaving the door wide open for better apps like mine. (Seriously, it’s much better, and it’s free. Trying to succeed in the App Store in 2016 is neither the time nor the place for modesty.)

Apple’s app has only a few integrations and privileges that third-party apps can’t match, and they’re of ever-decreasing relevance. They haven’t locked down the player market at all.

So let’s get back to that misguided New York Times article.

What (big) podcasters are asking for

Ignoring for the moment that “podcasters” in news articles usually means “a handful of the largest producers, a friend or two of the reporter, and a press release from The Midroll, who collectively believe they represent all podcasters, despite only being the mass-market tip of the iceberg, as if CBS represented all of television or Business Insider represented all of blogging,” and this article is no exception, what these podcasters are asking for is the same tool web publishers have used and abused to death over the last decade to systematically ruin web content nearly everywhere:

“More data.”

On the web, getting more data was easy: web pages are software, letting their publishers use JavaScript to run their own code right in your “player app” (web browser) to creepily record and analyze every move you made, selling you more effectively to advertisers and letting them algorithmically tailor their content to maximize those pennies at any cost to quality and ethics.

Podcasts are just MP3s. Podcast players are just MP3 players, not platforms to execute arbitrary code from publishers. Publishers can see which IP addresses are downloading the MP3s, which can give them a rough idea of audience size, their approximate locations, and which apps they use. That’s about it.

They can’t know exactly who you are, whether you searched for a new refrigerator yesterday, whether you listened to the ads in their podcasts, or even whether you listened to it at all after downloading it.3

Big publishers think this is barbaric. I think it’s beautiful.

Big publishers think this is holding back the medium. I think it protects the medium.

And if that ill-informed New York Times article is correct in broad strokes, which is a big “if” given how much it got wrong about Apple’s role in podcasting, big podcasters want Apple to add more behavioral data and creepy tracking to the Apple Podcasts app, then share the data with them. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.

By the way, while I often get pitched on garbage podcast-listening-behavioral-data integrations, I’m never adding such tracking to Overcast. Never. The biggest reason I made a free, mass-market podcast app was so I could take stands like this.

Big podcasters also apparently want Apple to insert itself as a financial intermediary to allow payment for podcasts within Apple’s app. We’ve seen how that goes. Trust me, podcasters, you don’t want that.

It would not only add rules, restrictions, delays, and big commissions, but it would increase Apple’s dominant role in podcasts, push out diversity, give Apple far more control than before, and potentially destroy one of the web’s last open media ecosystems.

Podcasting has been growing steadily for over a decade and extends far beyond the top handful of public-radio shows. Their needs are not everyone’s needs, they don’t represent everyone, and many podcasters would not consider their goals an “advancement” of the medium.

Apple has only ever used its dominant position benevolently and benignly so far, and as the medium has diversified, Apple’s role has shrunk. The last thing podcasters need is for Apple to increase its role and dominance.

And the last thing we all need is for the “data” economy to destroy another medium.


  1. Companies running completely proprietary podcast platforms so far, trying to lock it down for themselves: Stitcher, TuneIn, Spotify, Google. (I haven’t checked in a while: has everyone finally stopped believing Google gives a damn about being “open”?) ↩︎

  2. Beyond prohibiting pornographic podcasts in their directory and loosely encouraging publishers to properly use the “Explicit” tag. ↩︎

  3. Unless you listen with the podcast publisher’s own app, in which case they can be just as creepy as on the web, if not more so. But as long as the open, RSS-based ecosystem of podcast players remains dominant, including Apple Podcasts, virtually nobody can afford to lock down their podcasts to only be playable from their own app. ↩︎

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