The creators of Siri just showed off their next AI assistant, Viv

10 May 2016

From The Verge:

Dag Kittlaus and Adam Cheyer created the artificial intelligence behind Siri, Apple’s iconic digital assistant, and one of the first modern apps to capably handle natural language queries on a smartphone. Today the pair showed off their newest creation, Viv, a next generation AI assistant that they have been developing in stealth mode for the last four years. The goal was to create a better version of Siri, one that connected to a multitude of services, instead of routinely shuffling queries off to a basic web search. During a 20-minute demo onstage at Disrupt NYC, Viv flawlessly handled a dozen complex requests, not just in terms of comprehension, but by connecting with third-party merchants to purchase goods and book reservations.

The major difference between Siri and Viv is that the latter is a far more open platform. One of the biggest frustrations with Siri is that it has only a small number of tasks it can complete. For the vast multitude of requests or queries, Siri will default to a generic web search. Viv’s approach is much closer to Amazon’s Alexa or Facebook’s Messenger bots, offering the ability to connect with third-party merchants and vendors so that it can execute on requests to purchase goods or book reservations.

. . . .

The critical distinction here is between broad horizontal AI and specialized vertical AI. A service like, which shares investors with Viv, is focused on just one thing: scheduling meetings. It does this task very well, but it can’t do anything else. Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and their ilk are meant to be broad AI, able to handle a variety of different tasks. They act as the command and control bot, forwarding on queries to the appropriate bot for booking a hotel room or ordering flowers. So far Amazon and Facebook have been clear that their approach will aim to integrate with as many third-party services as possible. Siri and Google Now, on the other hand, have remained more closed off.

. . . .

At the heart of the paradigm shift from apps to bots was the concept of “conversation as a platform,” said CEO Satya Nadella. Viv epitomizes this trend. Its creators have been working on the problem of natural language comprehension for over a dozen years, starting with a DARPA-backed AI project in the early 2000s. That has led to a very nuanced and powerful system, capable of understanding and acting on queries like: “On the way to my brother’s house, I need to pick up some cheap wine that goes well with lasagna.”

“Viv is designed to be devices agnostic — think one platform, open to all services, for all devices, personalized for you. Viv’s goal is to be ubiquitous so it will understand your preferences and history as you engage with it on your mobile device, or in your car, or with your smart device at home,” said Adam Koopersmith, a partner with Pritzker Group Venture Capital, one of Viv’s investors. “Our sense is there will be a move away from having hundreds of different apps that act independently. These services will be integrated into everyday life. Viv will be the platform to enable it.”

Link to the rest at The Verge and thanks to Jan for the tip.

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Apple Stole My Music. No, Seriously.

6 May 2016

From Vellum:

“The software is functioning as intended,” said Amber.

“Wait,” I asked, “so it’s supposed to delete my personal files from my internal hard drive without asking my permission?”

“Yes,” she replied.

. . . .

I had just explained to Amber that 122 GB of music files were missing from my laptop. I’d already visited the online forum, I said, and they were no help. Although several people had described problems similar to mine, they were all dismissed by condescending “gurus” who simply said that we had mislocated our files (I had the free drive space to prove that wasn’t the case) or that we must have accidentally deleted the files ourselves (we hadn’t). Amber explained that I should blow off these dismissive “solutions” offered online because Apple employees don’t officially use the forums—evidently, that honor is reserved for lost, frustrated people like me, and (at least in this case) know-it-alls who would rather believe we were incompetent, or lying, than face the ugly truth that Apple has vastly overstepped its boundaries.

What Amber explained was exactly what I’d feared: through the Apple Music subscription, which I had, Apple now deletes files from its users’ computers. When I signed up for Apple Music, iTunes evaluated my massive collection of Mp3s and WAV files, scanned Apple’s database for what it considered matches, then removed the original files from my internal hard drive. REMOVED them. Deleted. If Apple Music saw a file it didn’t recognize—which came up often, since I’m a freelance composer and have many music files that I created myself—it would then download it to Apple’s database, delete it from my hard drive, and serve it back to me when I wanted to listen, just like it would with my other music files it had deleted.

. . . .

1. If Apple serves me my music, that means that when I don’t have wifi access, I can’t listen to it. When I say “my music,” I don’t just mean the music that, over twenty years (since before iTunes existed), I painstakingly imported from thousands of CDs and saved to my computer’s internal hard drive. I also mean original music that I recorded and saved to my computer. Apple and wifi access now decide if I can hear it, and where, and when.

2. What Apple considers a “match” often isn’t. That rare, early version of Fountains of Wayne’s “I’ll Do The Driving,” labeled as such? Still had its same label, but was instead replaced by the later-released, more widely available version of the song. The piano demo of “Sister Jack” that I downloaded directly from Spoon’s website ten years ago? Replaced with the alternate, more common demo version of the song. What this means, then, is that Apple is engineering a future in which rare, or varying, mixes and versions of songs won’t exist unless Apple decides they do. Said alternate versions will be replaced by the most mainstream version, despite their original, at-one-time correct, titles, labels, and file contents.

3. Although I could click the little cloud icon next to each song title and “get it back” from Apple, their servers aren’t fast enough to make it an easy task. It would take around thirty hours to get my music back. And even then…

4. Should I choose to reclaim my songs via download, the files I would get back would not necessarily be the same as my original files. As a freelance composer, I save WAV files of my own compositions rather than Mp3s. WAV files have about ten times the number of samples, so they just sound better. Since Apple Music does not support WAV files, as they stole my compositions and stored them in their servers, they also converted them to Mp3s or AACs. So not only do I need to keep paying Apple Music just to access my own files, but I have to hear an inferior version of each recording instead of the one I created.

. . . .

If you’re wondering why Apple hasn’t been sued yet, it’s because the iTunes Terms of Use vaguely warn of this issue, then later indemnify Apple and preclude any litigation from users who’ve been boned.

. . . .

I recovered my original music files only by using a backup I made weeks earlier. Many people don’t back up as often as they should, though, so this isn’t always an option. Amber relayed to me that she’s had to suffer through many calls from people who cancelled their Apple Music subscription after the free, three-month trial, only to discover that all of their own music files had been deleted and there was no way to get them back.

So my files were temporarily restored; but the only way to prevent this from happening over and over, according to Amber, was to cancel my subscription to Apple Music (which she herself doesn’t use due to the above-listed reasons) and to make sure my iCloud settings did not include storing any music backups.

. . . .

[E]ven in my most Orwellian paranoia I never could have dreamed that the content holders, like Apple, would also reach into your computer and take away what you already owned. If Taxi Driver is on Netflix, Netflix doesn’t come to your house and steal your Taxi Driver DVD. But that’s where we’re headed. When it comes to music, Apple is already there.

Link to the rest at Vellum and thanks to Niki, who says its lessons may apply to authors who save material to clouds, for the tip.

PG has been dealing with computer files for a long time and experience losing important files has lead him to believe that you can never have too many backups. On more than one occasion, PG has lost a file and discovered that his primary backup system didn’t have the file (or the latest version of the file) either. A secondary backup system has saved him.

Cloud backups are great with the right cloud services provider (PG patronizes a couple of different clouds in case one has problems). Backups on external hard drives sitting next to your computer are great and backups on external hard drives that spend most of their time far away from your computer are great.

Yes, this costs more money than not having any backups, but the costs involved in reconstructing even a single important file are much higher than expenses of several years of backup services.

iBooks and iTunes Shut Down in China

22 April 2016

From The New York Times:

For years, there has been a limit to the success of American technology companies in China. Capture too much market share or wield too much influence, and Beijing will push back.

Apple has largely been an exception to that trend. Yet the Silicon Valley company is now facing a regulatory push against its services in China that could signal its good relations in the country may be turning.

Last week, Apple’s iBooks Store and iTunes Movies were shut down in China, just six months after they were started there. Initially, Apple apparently had the government’s approval to introduce the services. But then a regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, asserted its authority and demanded the closings, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“We hope to make books and movies available again to our customers in China as soon as possible,” an Apple spokeswoman said in a statement.

. . . .

To a degree more than many tech companies, Apple relies on the smooth operation of its software — including its App Store and services like iTunes, which are tightly integrated with the iPhone and iPad — to keep customers coming back to its devices. Apple, which is facing a slowdown in sales of its iPhones, is also reliant on China for growth, so further moves by Beijing to curtail services could crimp sales.

The company counts China as its second-largest market after the United States. Its China numbers will be dissected on Tuesday, when it reports quarterly earnings.

China’s pushback against Apple shows that the company may finally be vulnerable to the heightened scrutiny that other American tech companies have faced in recent years. That scrutiny was spurred by revelations from the former United States National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden in 2013 of the use of American companies to conduct cyberespionage for Washington.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Content + curation + community = a new Apple Books

29 March 2016

From The Bookseller:

Apple is missing the boat on e-books.

And there’s billions of dollars at stake.

. . . .

If you’re buying an e-book, there’s only one place to go: Amazon. It’s not because of discovery; it’s mindshare. Most books aren’t discovered on Amazon – just bought there. Opportunity.But it’s easy to forget how deeply Amazon has burrowed into the online book world. Most Facebook shares or book reviews link to Amazon. Amazon results dominate bookish web searches. Goodreads is the online books community.

Conversely, iBooks is little more than a reader app and a buy link, with no community to speak of. Consider Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield (one of my favorites): Amazon/Goodreads have 2,600 reviews of the book, Apple has seven. A Google Search for “Gates of Fire” has Amazon 1st, Goodreads 4th, and Apple on page four – essentially invisible! The iBooks web experience is an ugly mess.

It’s instructive to look at Apple’s response when threatened by Spotify. Apple launched a major initiative, Apple Music. It was a “Manhattan Project” with internal and external components:  Apple acquired Beats for $3B and re-invented its music experience as Subscription + Curation + Beats 1 Radio. Connect, a centralised artist blog platform, was another unique addition. The result generates at least $1B annually.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Apple doesn’t need to maximize book sales

23 March 2016

Apple doesn’t need to maximize book sales. It simply needs to keep publishers happy enough to maintain an impressive-sounding inventory of titles while waiting for entirely new forms of publishing to develop.

Virginia Postrel

For iPad, Less Is More If It Comes With Good Content

19 March 2016

From Seeking Alpha:

Although it has been delayed a week from its original launch, rumors continue to buzz that Apple will debut a new iPad Monday. Usually reliable sources suggest the new iPad will shift the product line away from the Air philosophy of the last two iterations and towards the Pro model, which was debuted in larger-screen form last year.

Apple’s (presumed) move actually keeps with the prediction of Seeking Alpha’s own Mark Hibben. However, it may not be the correct move. Typical of the “consumers don’t know what they want” company, Apple appears to have decided to go against the prevailing trend in the tablet market.

. . . .

 I am not accusing Apple of being idle. To his credit, Apple CEO Tim Cook has not tried to hide anything. When iPod sales got small enough and Apple Watch sales disappointed, Apple simply folded them into larger categories to hide the gory details. Despite some suggestions he might do the same with iPad as sales went into freefall, Cook has taken the open and honest route.

. . . .

One such move: enterprise, which Jobs famously shunned, but Cook has made a full-court press to woo. The recent release of the oversized iPad Pro was the latest step, and the biggest. Cook already had Apple working with his former employer, IBM, to push Apple hardware to enterprise customers and collaborate on vertically integrated software for specific businesses. Now he has a piece of hardware to match Apple’s new ambitions, with a number of features built into the iPad Pro that suggest it might be the first tablet actually built with businesses, not consumers, in mind.

Apple is also tackling the software side. In addition to creating new apps with IBM for enterprise, Apple is also working on Classroom, to help make iOS more appealing to schools.

. . . .

 But it was not enough. Apple’s recent sales figures showed another decline in tablet sales, down almost 40% in unit sales from the 2013 peak and down 25% from even last year’s depressed number. It’s possible iPad Pro simply was too new and not available in sufficient quantities. Maybe it hasn’t been given enough time to move the needle. That’s certainly Apple’s preferred take on it. Cook says drawing enterprises into the iPad ecosystem will take time. Given Apple’s twelve-figure cash hoard, Apple can certainly afford to be patient with a new strategy, but what it can’t afford to do is ignore evidence it may be on the wrong track, especially when that evidence comes in the form of a competitor in hot pursuit to supplant it.

. . . .

 [Amazon’s] $50 Fire tablet vaulted it all the way back to third place for tablet sales over the holiday period last year, a 175% increase in a single year. If Samsung (OTC:SSNLF) falls victim to the same sales decline as Apple, and Amazon posts another strong year of growth, it may take over second place this holiday season. Amazon’s tablets have long been mocked as “fruitcake tablets,” things people buy for children or loved ones as gifts, but don’t want for themselves.

They are smaller, less powerful, and have lower resolutions. But they are much, much cheaper. Amazon has long since made its philosophy, and strategy, clear. It sees tablets as mere gateways to customers. Fire is sold more or less at cost to encourage the purchase of both digital content, and more importantly, Prime memberships, which spur sales of Amazon’s physical goods in the general retail sector.

This is anathema to Apple, which not only considers itself exclusively a purveyor of premium products, but also inherited from its late founder a visceral distaste for any suggestion a tablet should settle for such a small role in the human condition. When Steve Jobs released the first iPad in 2010, he had only one regret, as documented in his official biography. He had set the bar too low. More than one reviewer said they loved using their tablet to consume content, but it lacked the necessary tools to really be a creator of content. Jobs, who usually didn’t have much use for outside criticism of his ideas, took the reviews hard because he thought they were right. When he designed the iPad 2, one of the last products before his death, he pushed to incorporate content creation tools like a second camera and more powerful software.

. . . .

 This attitude, that tablets are for content creation as well as consumption, has outlived its creator at Apple to the present day. Tim Cook himself made explicit reference to it when launching the iPhone 5s in September 2013. Apple was just starting to get some early evidence that iPad’s growth was levelling, and he spent a considerable amount of time at the keynote pushing the theme. Apple devices, he said, were “great for consuming content,” but they were “incredible for creating content.”

. . . .

Meanwhile, “The Everything Store” was positively embracing the ideal of consumption. Fifty dollars is a breakthrough price, but it also means consumers know they aren’t getting everything they would get with a $500 iPad. Amazon has to make trade-offs to hit that price target, and their success hinges on if they can identify correctly which aspects of a tablet’s functions, specs and capabilities customers value most and which ones they are willing to go without to achieve savings.

This is sort of the mirror image of Apple’s problem, which is to keep coming up with new capabilities that persuade people to keep paying up for their top-of-the-line model. Amazon has come to focus almost exclusively on content consumption as a tablet’s reason for being. Its cameras are mediocre, its screens just big enough to enjoy a movie but not really big enough to work on. But it gives literally thousands of free apps to every Fire owner, and free trials of its Prime Music and Prime Video services. And it keeps cutting prices.

The fact that Amazon tablet sales rose while Apple sales fell suggests Amazon may be on to something. At the very least, Amazon seems to have a better finger than Apple does on the pulse of what consumers want to see as incremental improvements in their tablets. Lower costs for hardware and content seems to trump stronger processor power, bigger screens or better cameras. Even Cook’s ambition to put iPads in every school may fall short, as schools on tight government budgets will certainly consider cost as one of the prime factors in determining whose tablets they purchase.

Link to the rest at Seeking Alpha

PG says (the visitors to TPV notwithstanding) far more people are interested in consuming content than in creating content.

Apple’s marketing pitch to the contrary, many more iPad owners use their iPads to consume content than use them to create content. Perhaps a certain coolness associated with content creators rubs off on the iPad, but, as with virtually all tech hardware, last year’s big new thing costs a fraction of its former price this year.

The downward pressure on product prices never stops and a corresponding pressure on Apple to create astounding new products all the time continues.

The competition between two extraordinary companies like Apple and Amazon is fascinating to watch (at least for PG). However, PG doesn’t think Apple will ever be capable of competing on price, but Amazon shows signs that it may be able to compete on breakthrough product creation and design — see Amazon’s Echo and Alexa, for example.


Apple wronged by Supreme Court e-book pass – They can afford the fine, but that’s doesn’t make it right

9 March 2016

From Macnn:

Apple’s three-year legal case over price-fixing of e-books has ended, with the US Supreme Court saying that it will not allow the company to appeal. The court will not listen to Apple’s contention that a 2014 settlement requiring it to pay $450 million in costs and damages is wrong.

. . . .

Apple is now legally proven to have colluded with publishers Hachette, Macmillan, Penguine, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster to “eliminate retail price competition in order to raise e-book prices.” That’s from Judge Denise Cote’s 2014 ruling, where she concluded that it was Apple’s “orchestration” of this that made it work. What Apple really did was offer to sell e-books where the publishers set the price, rather than Apple. Compare that to Amazon, which imposed prices and in fact imposed low ones. If you tell publishers they can set the price, they’re going to set them higher.

That’s what happened, and you would think that this was retail pricing as per usual: businesses set a price, and then adjust it as they try to find the sweet spot between number of sales and profits per sale. It’s what they do with cars, it’s probably what they do with houses, yet when it came to e-books, suddenly it was a problem worth taking to the Supreme Court.

. . . .

It’s not fair or reasonable to say that courts don’t understand technology, you can’t possibly apply a sweeping statement like that to an entire judiciary — yet the Justice Department demonstrated a similar position when it failed to side with Hachette. That publisher had taken legal recourse after Amazon’s pricing thoroughly destroyed bookshops, and it needn’t have bothered.

I believe I do understand technology, and I am using it as both a reader and writer of e-books. Let me declare a bias here — an earned bias, borne of easily-describable experience, but a bias nonetheless. I like Apple’s iBooks Store, I like iBooks, and I prefer it to Amazon Kindle. I very much prefer Apple’s straight-down-the-line 30 percent fees compared to the confusing mess of Kindle’s pricing and financial reporting, which often results in authors and publishers getting quite a bit less than the promised 70 percent.

. . . .

Yet there’s the thing: Apple has always been accused of charging more for e-books than Amazon, and in my experience that varies from just-about-true to very-very-true. Charging more is indeed what Apple regularly does, but the argument here is that by charging more — and specifically by corralling publishers into charging more, Apple was cutting out companies who charge less.

If it were that Apple had a lock on the publishers, and forced them to charge higher prices everywhere, that might even make sense, but it is a matter of record that Apple did not do this. Apple went to publishers and said that it would take 30 percent of sales. There was nothing about what price they must charge, there was actually the opposite: Apple said the publishers could charge whatever they liked.

. . . .

Of course the publishers worked together: Amazon was selling books below cost, and that hurt publishers a lot more than it did the Kindle maker.

They were hurting long before Apple came along with iBooks, and they conspired to disrupt Amazon’s pricing model. We know that because the publishers admitted it. Everyone knows that, because the publishers admitted it. So it’s undisputed that Apple did not lead the conspiracy, yet that is precisely what it was accused of, and precisely what it has now been ruled as having done.

. . . .

This ruling is wrong. It’s as wrong as rather similar case in 1995, when the Supreme Court also refused to hear an appeal case from Apple.

Link to the rest at Macnn and thanks to Felix for the tip.

PG was about to discuss the various factual errors in the OP, but it’s late as he posts this.

PG will repeat what he has said before: This was a slam-dunk antitrust case for the Justice Department. Apple was right in the middle of the conspiracy to fix prices along with five of the six largest publishers in the US.

That’s illegal. Antitrust 101 illegal.

Compared to other price-fixing schemes, some of which have continued for years without being discovered, the participants in this one were total idiots. The only smart thing the publishers did was settle before trial.

There were so many smoking guns, you couldn’t pick your way through the evidence without getting burned.

How Apple and Big Publishers Pushed E-Books Toward Failure

8 March 2016

From Bloomberg Business:

Apple suffered a final defeat in its legal fight with the Justice Department over e-books Monday, when the Supreme Court refused to hear the company’s appeal. When the case was filed in April 2012 it was seen as a fight over the future of the digital book industry, with Apple Inc. and the five biggest publishers aligned against Inc. While Apple and its allies lost in court, their vision for the industry won out. It hasn’t been good for e-books.

The Apple case centered on whether publishers or online retailers  would determine the prices for e-books. At the time, Amazon was selling e-books at a loss, buying a book for, say, $14.99 but then charging Kindle users just $9.99. Publishers worried that tactic would train customers to expect books to come cheap forever.

. . . .

While Apple fought through the courts, the publishers all settled with the Justice Department. Meanwhile, Amazon decided that letting publishers set their own prices wasn’t such a bad idea, after all. Its newest deals with the big publishers allow them to do so. If Apple hoped to gain an advantage over a rival, it failed. Amazon controls about three-quarters of the U.S. e-book market, according to Good e-Reader, a website that follows the industry. In 2010 it made up 54 percent of the market.

Once Amazon gave up on its goal of setting a $10 standard price for e-books, the prices began to rise. Today, three of the top five best-selling books on the New York Times list for fiction cost at least $12. It’s not unusual to be able to buy a paperback book for less than the cost of the digital version.

There’s a widespread assumption that digital media always wins out over physical media. But even the Internet isn’t immune to the basic laws of economics. E-book sales declined 12.3 percent over the first 10 months of 2015, compared with the previous year, according to the American Association of Publishers, which compiles data from 1,200 companies.

. . . .

“It’s a fascinating question and clearly what it shows is that purchasers make a decision based on price,” said Robert Thomson, the chief executive officer of News Corp., which owns Harper Collins, in a recent call with investors. “They are valuing a print book versus an e-book.”

Thomson said he still expects e-books to grow as a percentage of the company’s overall book business, but acknowledged that people have lots of choices on their devices, and won’t necessarily choose books over other forms of entertainment.

Link to the rest at Bloomberg Business

Competition is not served

7 March 2016

Competition is not served by permitting a market entrant to eliminate price competition as a condition of entry, and it is cold comfort to consumers that they gained a new e-book retailer at the expense of passing control over all e-book prices to a cartel of book publishers.

Judge Debra Ann Livingston, writing for the majority in Apple Inc., v. United States, Second Circuit Court of Appeals

Supreme Court Rejects Apple’s Appeal

7 March 2016

From Publishers Weekly:

At its conference on Friday, March 4, the Supreme Court declined to take up Apple’s appeal in its e-book price-fixing case, effectively ending one of the publishing industry’s most closely-watched legal battles.

The Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari also means that Judge Denise Cote’s 2013 decision finding Apple liable is now considered final, triggering $400 million in refunds to e-book consumers under the terms of a 2014 settlement with 33 states and a consumer class. In addition, Apple will pay some $50 million in fees and attorney costs.

Apple attorneys had argued that Judge Cote erred infinding Apple liable for a “per se” case of price-fixing in 2013, claiming that Apple’s role as a vertical player required that it be judged under the more expansive rule of reason framework. The Supreme Court, however, rejected that argument without comment, leaving in place a 2-1 affirmation by the Second Circuit.

. . . .

The Supreme Court’s denial ends one of the most contentious legal dramas in modern publishing history, dating back to the launch of the iPad in January, 2010. Concerned that Amazon’s $9.99 Kindle prices for newly released e-books was devaluing books in consumers’ minds (but individually ill-equipped to move Amazon off that price point) five major publishers simultaneously negotiated a hasty deal with Apple that would change the e-book business from wholesale to agency pricing.

The move enabled publishers to collectively retake a measure of control over consumer e-book prices—which they immediately raised. And for Apple, the deal meant that titles in their new iBooks store could not be undercut by Amazon.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

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