Apple belatedly looks to refocus on podcasts

The podcasting industry was shaken up this week with the announcement that JRE is moving exclusively to Spotify and it looks like it has caught Apple’s attention.

Bloomberg reports that Apple is looking to increase its investment in original podcasts, as well as buying existing ones, to augment its nascent Apple TV+ service. While its easy to view this as a classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, Apple seems to view podcasts as either a by-product of video content or as material that could then be adapted to video.

Apple effectively invented the podcast format, which derives its name from the pioneering iPod digital audio player, but the pre-eminence of iTunes as a podcasting platform is under serious threat thanks to this recent development. You have to assume Joe Rogan (pictured) spoke to Apple before recently committing to Spotify, so it would be fascinating to know what led him to ultimately reject it.

If hearsay from Rogan’s friend Alex Jones is to be believed, the straw that broke the camel’s back was supplied by the podcast’s other main publishing platform, YouTube. In an article that seems to have since been taken down, Summit News claimed Rogan told Jones it was YouTube’s censorship of alternative views on the coronavirus pandemic that pushed him over the edge.

According to the piece, YouTube has been actively excluding popular content from its trending lists, including some of Rogan’s biggest. On top of that, YouTube has been taking down some videos from doctors and other experts that challenge the conventional narrative on things like COVID-19 pathology and the desirability of keeping society locked down. Rogan’s move is characterised in the piece as ‘a direct strike against the culture of censorship’.

We don’t know why that piece is no longer available, but it seems unlikely that Jones would have fabricated his conversation with Rogan, even if he is often inclined towards hyperbole. Our best guess is that Rogan either didn’t intend his views to be made public or regretted it once they were, and therefore asked for the story to be taken down. The publisher, Paul Joseph Watson, has close ties to Alex Jones and both of them were banned by Facebook a year ago for being ‘dangerous’.

Back to Apple, the podcasting industry will be hoping Spotify’s move will lead to the kind of spending arms race and bidding war for talent that has characterised the video streaming industry for some time. Not only do podcasts like JRE attract massive audiences, they cost next to nothing to produce. The only catch is that the best ones are completely uncensored and thus risky for prudish publishers. Perhaps that’s ultimately what pushed Rogan away from Apple.

Apple and Google release jointly developed exposure notification API

Just over a month after they started working on it, Apple and Google have made their COVID-fighting framework available to public health authorities.

The key to using smartphones for exposure notification and contract tracing is giving them the ability to constantly sense each other. This is best done through Bluetooth LE, but both iOS and Android prevent apps from using Bluetooth unless they’re active, so a special workaround is required. That has been built into this framework, but is only available to apps that use it.

“Starting today, our exposure notifications technology is available to public health agencies on both iOS and Android,” said a joint statement from the companies. “What we’ve built is not an app—rather public health agencies will incorporate the API into their own apps that people install. Our technology is designed to make these apps work better.

“Each user gets to decide whether or not to opt-in to Exposure Notifications; the system does not collect or use location from the device; and if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is up to them whether or not to report that in the public health app. User adoption is key to success and we believe that these strong privacy protections are also the best way to encourage use of these apps.”

The Verge reports that three US states (the response is much more decentralised over there) are already working on apps that use the framework. That piece also contains some handy explanations and links about the underlying tech and privacy implications. Apparently a total of 22 countries have received access to the API.

Turning this around so quickly is a good effort from Apple and Google, as was their quick decision to put business rivalry to the side for the time being, but then this sort of thing is one of their core competencies. The same can’t be said for health agencies, which is why the hubris of those, like the NHS in the UK, is so frustrating. They should stop trying to reinvent the wheel and go with the best technology available, which is almost certainly this.

Major blow for Google and Apple as Rogan podcast moves exclusively to Spotify

The streaming wars have opened a major new front with the news that Spotify has lured the Joe Rogan Experience away from YouTube and iTunes.

For those unfamiliar with the JRE podcast, it is the defining long-form, open discussion show, featuring completely unstructured conversations between host Joe Rogan and usually one other guest. As a comedian and martial arts commentator, those two topics are covered frequently, but the guest list is very eclectic, ranging from academics to politicians to showbiz figures.

JRE has 8.4 million subscribers on Google-owned YouTube and while that’s a massive number it’s nowhere near the top of the list of all YouTube subscribers. But if you strip out the music and TV brands, it must be right up there. The real traffic for podcasts, however, is from audio streams and downloads, which Rogan himself estimates are around ten times greater that video views. The biggest single platform for that is probably Apple iTunes, on which JRE is the second biggest in the US.

The raw numbers only tell half the story, however, with Rogan’s cultural influence extending even further, especially in the US. US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders used a claimed Rogan endorsement for political capital at the start of this year while, more recently, Rogan’s negative assessment of the eventual winner of the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden, sent shockwaves across the country and beyond. Most recently, his criticism of how California is handling the coronavirus lockdown seems to have made many residents consider fleeing the state.

So for Spotify to lure Rogan away from these two internet giants with a deal that will be exclusive from the start of next year is a major victory and a significant blow to its competitors. The WSJ reports that it cost Spotify $100 million, which is serious money. While that’s great news for Rogan, we will probably never know if it pays off for Spotify, but if Netflix (where you can find Rogan’s excellent standup) is anything to go by, paying for big names is the way forward.

As you may have gathered your correspondent is a big fan of JRE. At a time when public discussion seems to be more shrill, polarised and dumbed-down than ever, Rogan offers the kind of honest, nuanced, agenda-free discussion that is desperately needed. JRE fans not currently on Spotify will have some serious thinking to do at the start of the year and the Swedish streaming giant is betting a lot of the new users Rogan brings will upgrade to premium services.

The only thing that could go wrong is for Spotify to in any way try to alter the format or censor the often colourful content. Netflix hasn’t and it would be very surprising for Rogan to agree to any such interference. “While Spotify will become the exclusive distributor of JRE, Rogan will maintain full creative control over the show,” assures the Spotify announcement.

To date the streaming wars have largely focused on video content, but this move brings audio to the fore. Once people start commuting again, podcasts will be more important than ever and it increasingly looks like you need to be a Spotify user if you want access to the best ones.

Incidentally the only pod more popular than JRE in the US is currently in the middle of a drama over switching platforms. It may be no coincidence the YouTube recently lured its biggest star, PewDiePie, back from a rival platform. In these fractious times, authenticity has become a precious commodity, one that the internet giants are prepared to pay top dollar for.


Apple opens stores with mandatory face masks and temperature checks

Gadget giant Apple is slowly looking to return to normal, but that term now requires major qualification.

Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s head of retail, wrote a blog designed to update its customers on the state of things regarding its stores. “As of today, nearly 100 of our stores globally have been able to open their doors to our customers again,” writes O’Brien. Around half of these are Chinese stores, which have been open for a while, since the country seemed to have got on top of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now Apple tentatively starting the process of opening its stores in the US. O’Brien pointed people towards its store list, where you can see if one is open or not. It was clearly not designed for Journalists, however, as you have to click on each store before you can find out, which, frankly, we couldn’t be bothered to do. Apple has a total global store count of 510, so we’re still only looking at a small fraction of them.

The store experience won’t be quite as special as it used to be, however, as Apple is putting in place a bunch of special measures designed to mitigate the threat of catching the plague in its stores. “Face coverings will be required for all of our teams and customers, and we will provide them to customers who don’t bring their own,” writes O’Brien.

“Temperature checks will be conducted at the door, and posted health questions will screen for those with symptoms — like cough or fever — or who have had recent exposure to someone infected with COVID 19. Throughout the day, we’re conducting enhanced deep cleanings that place special emphasis on all surfaces, display products, and highly trafficked areas.”

Sounds like a laugh a minute, doesn’t it? Since Apple has had its delivery service up and running for a while and the look and feel of its products have barely changed for years, it’s not obvious what the great need is to risk life and limb for the chance to fondle some shiny things. But each to their own and it looks like Apple fetishists around the world will soon be able to get their fix once more, so long as they’re judged to be sufficiently untainted.

UK’s COVID-19 contact tracing app – will it work?

The UK has officially launched its NHS contact tracing app, but there remain many questions about how effective it can be.

The app is called ‘NHS COVID-19’ and is currently being trialled in the Isle of White, presumably to limit its spread, should it turn out to be rubbish. You can read the details of it as explained by the National Cyber Security Centre here. In short, it’s designed to do pretty much the same as all other contact tracing apps – to notify anyone who has been in close physical contact with anyone who is suspected of having COVID-19.

Also in common with other such initiatives around the world, the key point of contention around NHS COVID-19 is whether it uses a centralised or decentralised approach to collecting data. The decentralised method is favoured by Google and Apple, who own the platforms on which nearly all smartphones run and thus have ultimate control over what apps on them can or can’t do.

Under the decentralised system no significant data ever leaves the individual’s phone. All that happens that, when someone tells their version of the app they think they might have the ‘rona, it notifies the apps installed in phones of anyone who has been near them recently. This is all done by Bluetooth LE running in the background and no identity or location data is involved.

NHS COVID-19, however, uses the centralised model. In this case, when someone notifies the app of their possible blight, it passes that bulletin on to an NHS server, which then performs the function of notifying other at-risk punters. The advantage of this approach is that it will also enable a bunch of other clinical and epidemiological activities such as inviting the person to be tested and mapping disease hot-spots.

The centralised model obviously comes with a lot more data privacy and even civil liberty concerns, which is why the UK government has gone to considerable lengths to demonstrate security, transparency and accountability. Ian Levy, the Technical Director at the NCSC has blogged extensively on the matter and you can even read the technical paper. The Information Commissioner’s Office has also blogged and published a formal opinion.

As you would expect, Parliament is having a good look at this app too. Matthew Gould, CEO of NHSX, which is the digital transformation bit of the NHS, got a socially-distanced grilling from the Joint Committee on Human Rights yesterday and the matter of data protection was very much as the forefront.

“The app doesn’t at this stage know who you are, it doesn’t know who the people are you’ve been near, it doesn’t know where you’ve been,” said Gould, with the ‘at this stage’ bit somewhat undermining his attempt to reassure. “We’ve said we will open-source the code, we will publish the privacy assessment and security models.”

That was around 15:05 of the recording of the briefing. At 15:19 Gould is asked about the longer-term use of data shared with the NHS. “If data has been shared by choice with the NHS then it can be retained for research in the public interest,” he said. It remains to be seen how compliant with GDPR and general data best-practice that will be. Furthermore his answer serves as a great illustration of why people may be reluctant to allow their data to leave the confines of their phone.

Which brings us to a major flaw in the decision to go for the centralised approach – trust. The majority of the population will need to download and use the app for it to be effective, so anything that makes them think twice about doing so is surely a major setback. It seems clear the NHS is doing everything by the book and subjecting itself to maximum public scrutiny, but by going down this path is has built an unnecessary element of doubt into the whole project.

The biggest problem of all, however, is likely to stem from the fact that Google and Apple don’t support NHS COVID-19. That doesn’t mean they’re going to block it from their app stores, but it does mean it presumably won’t have access to the Google/Apple Exposure Notification API. The single biggest challenge that presents is how to keep the Bluetooth LE functionality active when the app isn’t on or in the foreground of the phone.

Coincidentally the two tech giants released more details of their API today, with Tech Crunch doing a good job of summarising the rules determining its use. By adopting the strategy it has, it seems the NHS has ensured we won’t get a COVID-19 contact tracing app that uses the Google/Apple API, which is a shame.

NHSX and the government are keen to stress that NHS COVID-19 is not, by itself, a silver bullet, and will form part of a broader set of measures designed to keep a lid on the pandemic once we’re allowed out of the house again. While we should stress that we’re not in any way advising against people doing their bit by downloading and using this app – we certainly will – its usefulness seems very likely to be seriously diminished by the decision to adopt the centralised approach.

If there was a good time for COVID-19 to impact Apple, it is now

Hardware sales for Apple have dipped over the last three months, but with services gaining weight and the firm still in the building stages for 5G, few seem to be worried.

Apple is in an interesting position currently. Thanks to the product roadmap, if there was a good time for sales to plunge due to extenuating circumstances, now is it.

While the team has recently announced the launch of a new device, the 2020 iPhone SE, this is only a taster of what is to come. The latter part of this year and the early part of 2021 is where the iGiant should make serious waves as it launches its own assault on the 5G era.

“Despite COVID-19’s unprecedented global impact, we’re proud to report that Apple grew for the quarter, driven by an all-time record in Services and a quarterly record for Wearables,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook. “In this difficult environment, our users are depending on Apple products in renewed ways to stay connected, informed, creative, and productive.”

Apple financial results for period ending March 31 (USD ($), millions)
  Total Year-on-year
Total revenues 58,313 +0.5%
Cost of sales 35,943 -0.7%
Net income 11,249 -2.7%

Source: Apple Investor Relations

Although iPhone sales have been hit by the pandemic, revenues are down by roughly 6.8%, as have Mac and iPad sales, decreasing 2.9% and 10.4% respectively, the wearables, home entertainment and services business units are on the up. The gains have compensated for the losses.

Apple released the figures following the close of financial markets, though share price was down by 3% in overnight trading.

Investors might not be thrilled by these figures, which were less than Wall Street expectations, there is perhaps evidence the diversification efforts of Apple are paying off.

Apple revenues split by product and service segments
Period iPhone Mac iPad Other Services
Q2 2020 49.6% 9.1% 7.5% 10.7% 22.9%
Q1 2020 60.9% 7.8% 6.5% 10.9% 13.8%
Q4 2019 52.1% 10.9% 7.2% 10.2% 19.5%
Q3 2019 48.3% 10.8% 9.3% 10.2% 19.2%
Q2 2019 53.4% 9.5% 8.4% 8.8% 19.7%
Q1 2019 61.6% 8.8% 7.9% 8.7% 12.9%

*Other = Wearables, Home and Accessories

With iPhone sales in particular being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, diversification efforts from Apple put the company in a promising position. Wearables, home entertainment and services in particular are making Apple seem like a much more well-rounded and sustainable business.

This is not a one-off either, diversification is key to navigating difficult periods. During this current crisis, Google and Microsoft are two companies who are performing admirably, another two example of organisations who have driven towards diversification from core competencies.

Perhaps the most important note to take away from this earnings call is that if Apple’s ability to make money was impacted by external influences, now is the best time for it to happen.

As with every other premium smartphone manufacturer, ambitions have been cast towards the up-coming 5G era, as well as the device refreshment cycle which is likely to accompany. 2020 was supposed to be the year of 5G, though perhaps the slowing of base station deployment has postponed this slightly.

Apple was never going to launch a 5G device in the first half of the year, it traditionally saves its flagship launch for the autumn, as consumers are preparing for Christmas purchases. There are of course reports that the launch of the Apple device in a few months will be delayed, but as long as it is before Christmas few executives will be worried. Interestingly enough, anticipation will also be extended to the telco industry.

The launch of the next Apple device could be a catalyst to launch 5G into the mainstream. Such is the power of Apple and its brand, 5G could be the new norm once the Cupertino-based tech giant makes a powerful statement. This could be a major influence in the migration of customers from 4G to 5G tariffs.

Apple is a very powerful company, and while sales have been impacted by COVID-19, its diversification efforts are compensating, and its major marketing activities are being reserved. As long as lockdowns have been eased by the end of the year, few Apple executives will be bothered by the financial impact of the coronavirus.

Global smartphone shipments fall by 17% coz of coronavirus

The latest smartphone shipment numbers from Strategy Analytics reveal an unprecedented drop that can only be due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Total shipments of 274.8 million units in the first quarter of this year represent a 16.8% decline on the year-ago total. No vendors were spared the austerity, bar Xiaomi, which at least managed to tread water thanks to its Indian presence. Apple declined the least out of the big three, so has gained a chunk of global market share compared to Q1 2019.

“As expected, the global smartphone market delivered its worst performance since records began,” said Linda Sui of SA. “Demand for smartphones slammed to a halt in the quarter, as the Covid-19 virus scare shut down major economies like China and shoppers placed their spending plans on hold.”

“This was Samsung’s lowest quarterly smartphone shipments for eight years,” said Neil Mawston of SA. “Despite a strong line-up of A, S and Note series models, Samsung was unable to escape the virus-led plunge in smartphone demand. Despite US-China trade wars and the Covid-19 virus scare, Huawei was able to maintain its global smartphone share at a respectable 18 percent during the quarter. China remains Huawei’s core region and most of its sales take place there.”

“Apple’s global smartphone market share has risen from 13 percent to 14 percent in the past year,” said Woody Oh of SA. “Apple’s new iPhone SE model with lower pricing and larger presence in emerging markets like India will give volumes a further bump in the coming months.”

If the production forecast is anything to go by, the global smartphone numbers could be even worse next quarter. Supply chains are disrupted and discretionary consumer spend has gone down the toilet, while everyone sits tight and waits to see how things will play out. As with so many other industries, the smartphone sector will have its fingers crossed for an explosion of pent-up demand in the second half of this year.

Incidentally, other analyst firms are increasingly publishing their numbers on the same day as SA, which we use as our primary source. It’s interesting to see how their estimates vary, so we’ve copied the Omdia and IDC tables below too.

Google and Apple begin testing COVID-19 exposure notification API

Just a couple of weeks after revealing their intention to collaborate over a contact tracing app, Google and Apple have made the first API available to developers.

There doesn’t seem to have been a formal announcement, but plenty of US tech media such as Tech Crunch and the Verge are reporting on it, implying they have been notified directly. It’s being called the ‘exposure notification’ API, which seems to be designed to provide a more specific description as well as making the whole thing sound a bit less intrusive and Orwellian.

The reports say more details will be made available tomorrow, but access to the code will remain limited to public health authorities. While this creates concerns about how the apps will function, especially with respect to privacy, it also makes sense as a fragmentation of the contact tracing app ecosystem would massively diminish the effectiveness of each one.

The political implications of this unprecedented collaboration between the two companies the dominate the global smartphone market aren’t limited to privacy concerns. Opinion is divided about whether the decentralised approach advocated here or a centralised one in which governments gather data from smartphones is best.

While it may lose some of the public communication tools offered by the centralised approach, we feel the Google/Apple approach is better for the simple reason of trust. If people think a contact tracing app will be used to spy on them and arbitrarily punish them, they’re much less likely to install and use it. The efficacy of such an app relies on the participation of a large proportion of the population, so the number one priority should be maximising uptake.

Unlike France, Germany decides to do smartphone contact tracing the Apple/Google way

Contact tracing via smartphone is a powerful way to tackle the spread of coronavirus, but it mustn’t be done at the expense of individual civil rights.

This is the dilemma at the core of all attempts to use mobile technology for epidemiological good around the world. Thankfully there is increasing consensus that a decentralized approach, which doesn’t involve tracking the location and movements of individuals, is the best way of balancing those interests.

Leadership on this matter has been shown by the two companies that own the platforms on which nearly all phones run: Google and Apple. A couple of weeks ago they got together to announce a joint effort in this regard and make it available to national governments. Not all of them liked the idea, however, with France demanding Apple loosen its privacy rules for some kind of EU spy app.

France probably hoped its senior partner at the top of The EU, Germany, would have backed its call. But the Germans have always a more pragmatic bunch and, over the weekend, the German government announced it was abandoning the cunning plan unveiled by a bunch of Euro techies at the start of this month, in favour of a decentralised approach, effectively endorsing the Apple/Google method.

To what extent the German decision also contradicts recently-released EU guidelines on this sort of thing will be interesting, but it certainly seems to offer less state access and control over user data than the continental bureaucracy would have liked. In contrast it seems to buy into the concept put forward by UK’s Oxford University, that maintains you don’t need to track location in order to do effective contact tracing.

That might seem counter-intuitive, but only if you think the purpose of such technology is to control the movements of people suspected if being infectious, the sort of thing repressive states like China would have no problem doing in order to lock people in their homes or whatever. The more democratic way is to make a voluntary app available for download, that uses Bluetooth to track other phones that have come near that one. Users of the app can then voluntarily announce their suspected infection in order for those they have been in contact with to be notified.

For example, that seems to be the sort of thing the Australian government has come up with in the form of an app called COVIDSafe. It was only made available yesterday and already has over a million downloads, showing you don’t need to force people to muck in to the collective effort. There have been concerns, however, about the fact that the source code for the app hasn’t been made available, but apparently it will in due course and experts, on the whole, don’t seem worried.

In the absence of widespread testing, using technology to let people know when they have been in contact with anyone who has announced they are showing symptoms seems like one of the best ways to limit the spread of coronavirus in free countries. It’s great to see tech companies, governments and various experts arrive at a best-practice consensus so quickly and we look forward to a UK version of this kind of app being released ASAP.

France does exactly what it was told not to with COVID-19 app

Much has been said about using technology to combat the coronavirus outbreak, but France has done exactly what many critics feared by cutting corners to compromise security and privacy.

France is one of the hardest hit countries during this pandemic, with more than 114,000 confirmed cases at the time of writing, therefore it is understandable the Government wants to accelerate the deployment of any projects. However, this latest debacle will have data security and privacy advocates tearing their hair out.

Having developed an application to track the spread of COVID-19 using Bluetooth contact tracing, though some functionality of the app is being prevented by Apple’s security features. Designed to protect user data, the iOS feature prevents data being moved off Apple devices via Bluetooth.

Instead of attempting to adapt the application, to ensure privacy and security is maintained for the users, according to Bloomberg French authorities have made the almost laughable decision to request Apple turn off the features in France.

Almost everyone in the digital community recognises the importance of maintaining security and privacy principles despite the severity of the situation, but it appears France missed this memo.

“We’re asking Apple to lift the technical hurdle to allow us to develop a sovereign European health solution that will be tied our health system,” French Digital Minister Cedric O said.

The French Government has stated the data would only be stored on its own servers, with the healthcare authority acting as the data controller, but this seems to be missing the point. O is effectively asking Apple to lift a security protocol and introduce a vulnerability to French Apple devices. And wherever there is a slightly weakness in cyber-defences, the nefarious characters of the dark web are waiting to pounce.

Over the last few weeks, European Data Protection Supervisor Wojciech Wiewiórowski has been quite active. In one letter, responding to concerns over user privacy, Wiewiórowski said the transfer of data would be fine under GDPR assuming the relevant protections have been put in place. It is questionable whether asking Apple to remove a security feature is consistent with this message from Wiewiórowski.

The collection of data is a reasonable approach by any authority, though it does not have to be done in a way which compromises user security and privacy. There are thousands of applications on the App Store which makes use of location or device proximity data without compromising iOS guidelines, so it clearly can be done.

What is also worth noting is that Apple is currently working in partnership with Google to create a framework for COVID-19 applications.

Although bringing the smarts of Google and Apple into the equation will certainly help, the framework which is being proposed would rely on short-range Bluetooth signals, secure local databases and anonymized device identifiers, but would ultimately store data locally on user devices. This is a point of contention with Governments who would like to collect data on centralised servers.

The application of new technologies is certainly the best way to tackle this on-going pandemic, however what appears to be the case here is a fragmented ecosystem.

Silicon Valley is taking one approach, dozens of governments are putting together their own ideas, while privacy advice is being given by centralised regulators but not being adhered to by localised authorities. The mishmash of policies and ideas is not the most efficient way to tackle the problem, or to ensure data protection and security principles are being respected.

Three weeks ago, the European Data Protection Supervisor called for a consolidated, co-ordinated approach, creating a pan-European effort which would be significantly more beneficial. More data, more scientists and more money being thrown at the problem, but this logical idea has fallen on deaf ears as the French ignore advice, cut corners and endanger the digital lives of users.