Japan’s noisy iPhone problem

I cancelled my iPhone 7 Plus order last week. Yes, I still had a two-week wait before it was scheduled to arrive, but it wasn’t impatience that got the better of me. It was where I live: in Japan. iPhones sold here (and in Korea) hold the dubious honor of being customized for their markets. We’re not talking about extra mobile wallet functions, but a limitation; a constraint. Ever since the iPhone 3GS arrived in Japan in 2008, taking a photo and even a screenshot (ugh) has been accompanied by a mandatory shutter noise — one that iPhone users elsewhere probably turn off right away. Even switching to mute mode doesn’t halt the awkward ‘passht’ added to discourage covert photography. I’ll soon leave Japan and return to my native England, at which point I’ll reconsider upgrading. I’m not buying another Japanese iPhone.

The mandatory shutter sound has been a part of Japan’s camera phones almost ever since they went on sale back in 2000. This was the first country to sell camera-equipped phones that could send photos electronically. Kyocera’s VP-210 had what was then a cutting-edge 0.11-megapixel sensor: the era of camera phones had begun.

There’s a misconception that there’s some kind of legal provision to ensure smartphones (or feature phones), make a noise when you take a photo. That isn’t the case.

As these devices proliferated and people got used to attaching photos to emails (“sha-mail”), voyeuristic “up-skirt” photography became a concern — especially in crowded places like rush-hour trains. According to Akky Akimoto, writing for The Japan Times in 2013, people were discussing the issue online as early as 2001. There’s a misconception that there’s some kind of legal provision to ensure smartphones (or feature phones), make a noise when you take a photo, but that isn’t the case.

Over these years, sending photos became a core feature of modern cell phones, and wireless carriers took it upon themselves to ensure that all the models they offered came with built-in cameras with shutter sounds that couldn’t be disabled. NTT Docomo has said it was implemented “to prevent secret filming or other privacy issues.” A SoftBank spokesman gave me a similar answer: “When we first offered camera phones and the ‘sha-mail’ service around 2000, we requested that manufacturers make the shutter sound compulsory, even on manner mode.”

“This was done to prevent camera phones from being used in ways offensive to public morals. We continue to request handset manufacturers use the shutter sound,” the spokesperson continued.

Phone manufacturers and carriers have cooperated ever since, ensuring all phones sold in Japan make a sound for still videos, still photos and screenshots. While this might been seen as a well-intentioned move (and one that could discourage would-be voyeurs), the companies are protecting themselves against legal repercussions from anyone who gets harassed or sees photos of themselves online or elsewhere, taken without their permission.

Apple’s iPhone is the same. Worse, the iPhone 7 actually has the noisiest shutter sound yet — something that my Japan-based colleagues are blaming on the new stereo speakers.

Japan residents could buy an overseas model: Recent iPhone models share a lot of LTE bands across countries, and the company even displays all the radio bands of each iPhone model it sells. However, the iPhone 7 is the first Apple phone to work with the country’s well-established Suica contactless payment system, used in convenience stores, restaurants and the country’s national railway. The American variant (or the Hong Kong one, anywhere but Japan) doesn’t include the same contactless hardware.

The mandatory noise hasn’t solved the problem of cellphone voyeurs either. According to the Japan Times, which cites an NHK TV program from early 2013, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police had seen a 24 percent annual rise in “camera voyeurism” — up 60 percent from 2007. The majority of those (64 percent) had used cell-phone cameras, although there’s something to be said for the remaining percentage that were taken on cameras that weren’t forced to make a shutter sound.

Limiting creepy photographers with enforced smartphone sounds is worsened by the availability (especially in Japan and Korea) of “manner camera” apps where users can take photos on iPhones and other smartphones with no faux shutter sound. These are often slower, typically taking lower-quality pictures; you also can’t launch them from drop-down menus or the lock screen. Unfortunately, if unscrupulous types really want to take covert photos of unsuspecting people on trains and elsewhere, they will find a way to do so.

With the current iteration of iOS 10, Japanese users can tinker with the phone’s accessibility functions to add a mute toggle to the screen that silences the shutter noise. But this is likely a bug that Apple will squash in a later update, which means my new iPhone order will remain cancelled for now. I’m not some kind of covert photographer; I just hate being so conspicuous when I use my smartphone. I can tolerate it in Japan, where everyone suffers the same fate, but anywhere else, where you can mute your phone, I look like an incompetent fool who got his first smartphone in 2016: “You can mute that, you know?” “No, I can’t..”

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Pacemaker’s shareable, editable ‘mixtapes’ make everyone a DJ

Ever since the original Pacemaker DJ device in 2008, the Swedish team has been rethinking how we mix music. Today, Pacemaker’s iOS app gets an overhaul that drags the mixtape well and truly into 2016. Pacemaker had long since moved on from being a facsimile of the DJ booth, instead allowing all music lovers to pick tunes from Spotify, and create seamless playlists stitched together by the app’s in-house AI DJ “Mållgan.” Today Pacemaker expands on that with a bunch of social features that blend elements of Soundcloud and Spotify with, of course, a little DJ twist.

Until now, Pacemaker only let you create basic mixes from Spotify tracks (you need a premium subscription), or music from your iPhone library. You could control how and when the songs overlapped, save your mix, and share the result. The update bakes in a bunch of social features so you can follow friends, see their mixes, and even edit them — so if you don’t like that dodgy Diplo mix in the middle, swap it out for some Jack Ü. These new, edited mixes (and of course your own), can then be shared back to Pacemaker for a never-ending stream of modern day mixtapes.

The new feed takes one of Soundcloud’s best features — the ability to follow or discover up and coming artists — making Pacemaker interesting to those that just want to enjoy music, even if they’re shy of stepping up to the virtual DJ booth themselves. Naturally you can comment, like and see what’s trending as per anything social these days. Of course, the Spotify integration also means all the performers involved get a digital penny for their troubles, too.

For those that do want to dust off their DJ skills, there are a bunch of audio effects like reverb and “8-bit” so you can add a bit more spice beyond a smooth transition from left to right. Some of these are free (as is the basic app), but expect to shell out a buck or two for some of the more fancy pants audio accoutrements. The updated Pacemaker is available in the App Store starting today.

Source: iTunes

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Apple logs your iMessage contacts and could share them with police

Apple’s iMessage had a few security holes in March and April that potentially leaked photos and contacts, respectively. Though quickly patched, they are a reminder that the company faces a never-ending arms race to shore up its security to keep malicious hackers and government agencies out. But that doesn’t mean they will always be able to keep it private. A report from The Intercept states that iMessage conversation metadata gets logged in Apple’s servers, which the company could be compelled to turn over to law enforcement by court order. While the content of those messages remains encrypted and out of the police’s hands, these records list time, date, frequency of contact and limited location information.

When an iOS user types in a phone number to begin a text conversation, their device pings servers to determine whether the new contact uses iMessage. If not, texts are sent over SMS and appear in green bubbles, while Apple’s proprietary data messages appear in blue ones. Allegedly, they log all of these unseen network requests.

But those also include time and date stamps along with the user’s IP address, identifying your location to some degree, according to The Intercept. Like the phone logs of yore, investigators could legally request these records and Apple would be obliged to comply. While the company insisted that iMessage was end-to-end encrypted in 2013, securing user messages even if law enforcement got access, Apple said nothing about metadata.

Apple confirmed to The Intercept that it does comply with subpoenas and other legal requests for these exact logs, but maintained that message content is still kept private. Their commitment to user security isn’t really undermined by these illuminations phone companies have been giving this information to law enforcement for decades but it does illustrate what they can and cannot protect. While they resisted FBI requests for backdoor iPhone access earlier this year and then introduced a wholly redesigned file system with a built-in unified encryption method on every device, they can’t keep authorities from knowing when and where you text people.

Source: The Intercept

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Steam is turning into the App Store and that’s OK

Steam changed the video game industry in the same way Netflix changed television. Digital distribution was a natural evolution for gaming in the early 2010s, allowing PC players to skip the midnight-release lines at Gamestop and purchase new titles with the click of a button. While Steam wasn’t the first hub to offer digitally distributed games — Valve debuted it in 2003 — it quickly gained a massive following and by 2011 was undoubtedly the largest platform for finding, buying and playing games on PC, Mac and Linux. Today, Steam hosts more than 10,000 titles and nearly 160 million active users per month, according to Steam Spy and EEDAR.

Steam is Netflix on pixelated, interactive steroids.

Even consoles eventually followed Steam’s lead, becoming more connected and relying less on physical discs with each new generation. In 2013, Microsoft attempted to launch the Xbox One as an always-on console that would eliminate disc games, but the living-room audience wasn’t ready for a digital-only reality. Still, both the Xbox One and PS4 essentially operate as disc-less consoles, offering every game, update and service via online connections.

Steam is a leader in the gaming industry, often setting or predicting trends that will dominate the rest of the market in due time. And, over the past few years, it’s been setting another trend that sounds daunting for new, especially independent, developers: game saturation.

“It used to be that an indie game of reasonable quality, released on Steam, would probably at least break even. That is no longer true,” says Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid and The Witness. “I don’t think Steam is anywhere near the App Store in terms of oversaturation — yet? — but it has definitely gone in that direction.”

Two fans of Valve’s Team Fortress 2 at PAX 2011 (Image credit: Flickr/sharkhats)

A few major changes have rocked Steam since 2012, starting with the launch of Greenlight, a process that allows players to vote in games that they think deserve to be sold on Steam proper. Greenlight replaced Valve’s in-house curation system staffed by employees, instead allowing players themselves to determine whether a game was good enough for the service. Aside from outsourcing the curation process, Valve hoped Greenlight would help developers market their games, offering an extra layer of fan interaction and awareness.

Greenlight was confusing and even detrimental for some developers, even two years after its launch. However, Greenlight cracked open the door for plenty of new studios and Steam began hosting more games than ever before. Valve accepted 283 titles in 2011, and by 2012 that figure had risen to 381, according to Steam Spy. In 2013, 569 new games were added to Steam.

That’s when Early Access came along. In March 2013, Valve debuted a program that allowed developers to sell unfinished, in-production games on Steam. It was an idea similar to Greenlight, allowing developers to cultivate communities before their games actually went live, but this service could generate revenue at the same time. This was an easier sell to developers and it led to some great success stories, even for small titles.

These two shifts in Steam’s operation opened the floodgates. In 2014, Steam Spy says the service added 1,783 games, more than tripling the previous year’s number. In 2015, Steam added 2,989 games, and so far in 2016, the service has accumulated 3,236 more. There are 10,243 games on Steam and more than half of them have been added in the past two years, even though the service has been live for more than a decade.

Steam Early Access at a glance; screenshot taken September 26, 2016

Rami Ismail, co-creator of Nuclear Throne and Ridiculous Fishing, says Early Access changed Steam entirely. Most games on Greenlight eventually make it to Steam now and Early Access pushed developers to sell services (continually updated gaming experiences), rather than products (like a boxed game).

“The increased competition on the platform has changed some crucial elements at Valve,” Ismail says. “The curational quality of Steam has disappeared, which has its pros and cons, and developers are eagerly participating in the race to the bottom for PC games too. If anything, this will further popularize subscription-based, free-to-play and DLC models on the platform.”

That “race to the bottom” reveals itself in Steam Spy’s stats. While the number of Steam games has risen dramatically over the past three years, the average price of those games has fallen to $ 10.33 in 2016 from $ 14.21 in 2013.

With an influx of games and falling prices, developers are unable to rely on Steam the same way they used to in the early 2010s. Ismail says that, back then, a decent game could net 10,000 sales or more at launch, but today many great games end up in the “2,000 graveyard,” selling just 2,000 units before disappearing from the charts altogether.

“I think the idea of Steam being this mythical money-maker that instantly makes people rich is mostly a myth that held some truth back at the start of the decade,” Ismail says. “Nowadays, you’re less dependent on launch and more dependent on sales, maintaining visibility over time and building a community. Which, I guess, explains why Early Access is so popular.”

“The idea of Steam being this mythical moneymaker that instantly makes people rich is mostly a myth that held some truth back at the start of the decade.” – Rami Ismail

Steam may be crowded and pushing a new breed of developer-player relationships, but it’s far from a worst-case scenario. Plenty of developers keep their eye on multiple platforms, and the mobile marketplace has long been viewed as a bastion of gross oversaturation. It’s nearly impossible to get noticed on the App Store or Google Play, each of which hosts roughly 2 million programs in total.

“I don’t actually think it’s fair to compare Steam to the App Store,” Firewatch and The Walking Dead lead writer Sean Vanaman says. “The App Store sets price expectations around $ 1 from day one, caters to every human being on Earth with an iPhone and, due to the App Store products being so diverse — you can get Transistor, a date on Tinder and a recipe for eggplant parmesan all in the same 60 seconds — you have tremendous problems with search, discoverability and pricing. There are over 1 million apps in the App Store. Sixty-thousand games hit the App Store per month. That to me is oversaturation.”

As powerful an influence as Steam is on the gaming market, it’s still subject to the whims of a growing industry. Video games are becoming more mainstream by the moment, and the tools for creating games are more accessible than ever. More people are making games, which means there are simply more games to go around — and that’s a good thing, according to Jonathan Blow.

“It’s easier to make a game than it used to be,” Blow says. “So to ‘fix’ that you either have to make it harder to make games or you have to put up barriers for people to get their games to an audience. Both of those sound pretty bad.”

The third option is curation, and Blow sees that playing out fairly successfully on forums and other third-party websites. Steam did launch its own Curators system in 2014 featuring recommendations from established gaming websites and people, but as Blow puts it, “I don’t feel like it has a lot of teeth right now.”

Steam Curators at a glance; screenshot taken September 26, 2016

Ismail largely agrees with Blow’s assessment of the industry.

“Game development is becoming more and more like photography or music bands,” he says. “As it gets easier to make games, that trend will accelerate. Think about it this way: Almost everyone can make a good photo or learn to play an instrument, but only a few do it professionally, and of those, only few can sustain themselves. Games will be like that too.”

The process of developing, marketing and selling a game — especially an independent endeavor — has shifted drastically over the past four years. Players expect transparency and consistent updates, and many times they even want to be involved in the game’s production. This could be a side effect of the Kickstarter generation or an extreme extrapolation of the Minecraft model (the game was successfully sold in beta form for years). Whatever the reason, it’s the new reality.

Steam may not be a magical moneymaking machine for developers, but it is growing with the industry and evolving along the way. Besides, it’s ill-advised for new developers to pin all their hopes on a single platform, Octodad creator Philip Tibitoski says. Every platform, from PC to consoles to mobile, changes regularly due to circumstances that developers simply can’t control.

“I’m not sure developers could ever depend on Steam in the way a studio or individual starting out might think they could,” he says. “The games that thrived on Steam three years ago or so were games with robust promotional cycles that focused around mechanics or ideas that grabbed people within that zeitgeist.”

Tibitoski recommends finding a platform that makes sense for each individual game. That means negotiating with Valve, Sony or Microsoft to get the game showcased on their storefronts, and making sure the studio’s audience actually uses its chosen platform.

“In my experience, there are no guarantees, and all you can really do is build on your own ability to be adaptable, self-aware and cautiously courageous in the choices you make,” Tibitoski says.

Whatever the modern developer’s preference, Ismail and Blow agree it’s best to not launch a game on mobile first. Blow suggests a more curated platform like PlayStation 4, or even a dual-platform launch that hits Steam and PS4 at the same time. Ismail says to “launch as often and in as many stores as you can.”

“If you’re doing a game across Steam and mobile or console, do Steam first,” he says. “Even though you’re developing them simultaneously and the order barely matters in most cases, people hate mobile and console games coming to Steam, but console and mobile users love PC games coming to their platforms.”

Success on Steam is all about these tricks — and its marketplace has certainly gotten trickier over the past four years.

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Apple Watch could soon track your sleep and fitness levels

The Apple Watch is billed as a fitness-focused device, but it doesn’t really make sense of fitness data — you’re supposed to interpret the numbers yourself. However, Apple might soon give its wristwear some added smarts. Bloomberg sources claim that the Apple Watch will get apps that track sleeping patterns and fitness levels. It’s not certain how the sleep tracking would work (most likely through motion), but the watch would gauge your fitness by recording the time it takes for your heart rate to drop from its peak to its resting level.

It’s not certain when you’d get the apps. Apple, for its part, hasn’t commented. However, neither of these new features would require new hardware. Sleep tracking wearables have been around for a while, and the fitness measurement would just be a matter of parsing the heart rate data you can get from any Apple Watch.

If real, the move would be part of a broader effort to transform Apple’s overall approach to health. Reportedly, it wants its HealthKit framework to help “improve diagnoses,” not just collect data. You and your doctor could watch out for telltale signs of a condition, or measure your progress on the road to recovery. This would undoubtedly help Apple’s bottom line (you’d have to use at least an iPhone to get this information), but it could also help you make important life decisions.

Via: 9to5Mac

Source: Bloomberg

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After Math: Tinder profile make-overs and one-terabyte SD cards

Is your new iPhone hissing? Is your replacement Galaxy Note not exploding? Regardless, we shall begin. This week we saw plenty of new (and old-school) cameras at Photokina, one editor tried to improve his odds on dating apps by outsourcing the task, and one of Japan’s pro-league basketball courts got covered in LED screens. We also had our collective minds blown by the mere notion of a 1TB SD card. Arguably, our minds are easily blown. Let’s After Math.

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Ben Heck’s Pokémon Go survival kit

The Ben Heck Show - Episode 255 - Ben Heck's Pokemon Go Survival Kit

The team responds to the Pokémon Go craze, taking your suggestions to create an improved Pokémon Trainer experience. Ben, Felix and Karen join forces to design and build a smartphone wrist mount for your iPhone or Android handset that will help you to catch ’em all. Thanks to Autodesk Fusion 360, designing a 3D model of the smartphone carriage is easy. Felix builds the battery charging and power management to ensure your phone has enough power on the go since the app otherwise drains the battery rather quickly. But, this extra hardware needs somewhere to sit. Karen steps in to help, with Ben using her as a hand model to demonstrate the design for the battery holder, phone carriage and blinking lights (an important detail for showing everyone which team you’re affiliated with). Still, working with fabrics isn’t as easy as it may seem. Want to make your own? You can find the build files at the element14 Community, where you can suggest your own project and interact with the team.

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iOS 10.0.2 update fixes bugs in headphones, Photos

Even if you’ve already updated to iOS 10, Apple has released its first official update for its mobile/TV operating system. Bugs that could shut down the Photos app when turning on iCloud Photo Library and disable app extensions have ben smushed, but folks with the iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus may want it for another reason.

Some users complained about the new Lightning-connected EarPods timing out, which would stop their in-line playback controls from working to adjust the volume, answer calls or use Siri. This update fixes the problem, making things just like they were when your phone had a headphone jack. Of course, you’re probably beta testing iOS 10.1 already, looking forward to new features instead of stable builds with bugfixes . Either way, the current update should be accessible via your Settings menu now.

Via: 9to5Mac, MacRumors

Source: Apple

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Mysterious Apple device surfaces in FCC filing

What is the A1844? We don’t know, but an FCC filing for the Apple-built hardware popped up, revealing a few interesting details that raise more questions than answers. Revealed by the French website Consomac, the device is similar in size to an Apple TV 4th-gen box (the new one with the Siri voice remote), but there are no full pictures or other details to explain exactly what it does. AppleInsider points out that tests reveal Bluetooth and NFC (which is not currently included in the Apple TV) capabilities, but didn’t note WiFi, which could be a result of re-used hardware or that it’s not present. The diagram included in the filing shows a shape and screws that appear to be similar to the current Apple TV.

A1844 FCC diagram

Speculating based mostly on what I’d like to see from Apple next, the release of the iPhone 7 makes this the perfect time to drop a refreshed Apple TV with 4K and HDR capabilities that can display those wider color gamut photos. Also, hardware revisions could happen that don’t include much change at all, but the power specifications of this device are different from the current model. Other, possibly more realistic options, could include a device meant for retail use in Apple Stores or elsewhere that’s compatible with Apple Pay, or even some kind of home automation hub. Your guess is as good as ours, feel free to dig through the currently available documents here.

Via: AppleInsider, Consomac

Source: FCC

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The iOS Portrait Mode update is live in public beta

Apple just launched iOS 10 last week, but it’s already working full throttle on the next update. Today, Apple made iOS 10.1 available in its public beta program, just one day after launching it for developers. The latest update adds Portrait Mode to the iPhone 7 Plus, allowing owners to take professional-looking photos that artfully blur out the background to better focus on the main object. Portrait Mode requires two photos to create a depth map, which is one reason it’s limited to the iPhone 7 Plus — only the Plus has a dual-camera system.

With iOS 10, Apple opened up the iPhone ecosystem, allowing third-party developers to create programs that work in iMessage and other previously closed apps. This is at odds with the hardware side of things: Apple removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, effectively walling off the devices from the broader tech world.

Source: MacRumors

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