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Apple is changing parts of its app review process after the Hey controversy

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Apple took to its developer website to announce a number of new initiatives, services, and tools for developers today. Most of what the company listed are evolutions of the standard offerings it promotes at its ongoing developer conference, but one line item appears to be a direct response to the recent controversy over App Store guidelines raised by Dropbox—which we wrote about at length last week.

Moving forward, the Cupertino company says it will no longer hold up bug fixes over guideline violations except where legal concerns are at play. Apple also says that it will offer new channels for developers to challenge its judgments.

Apple came under fire after it rejected a bug-fix update to email app Hey, which is made by Basecamp. Apple told the app’s developers that the app would have to incorporate Apple’s own system for in-app purchases or risk being delisted. Apple also claimed it should have rejected the app to begin with but that it only noticed the issue when reviewing the bug-fix submission.

The CTO of Basecamp took to Twitter with an impassioned thread accusing Apple of criminal behavior for insisting on a cut of the app’s revenues. The tweet thread sparked a great deal of discussion, not only about Apple’s take of app revenues but also about the company’s failure to be transparent and consistent about App Store guidelines.

Here are Apple’s words on the developer website today:

Additionally, two changes are coming to the app review process and will be implemented this summer. First, developers will not only be able to appeal decisions about whether an app violates a given guideline of the App Store Review Guidelines, but will also have a mechanism to challenge the guideline itself. Second, for apps that are already on the App Store, bug fixes will no longer be delayed over guideline violations except for those related to legal issues. Developers will instead be able to address the issue in their next submission.

Developers will surely be glad to hear of the change regarding updates that are composed of bug fixes. The rest of Apple’s statement seems to suggest that the company is opening up new avenues of discussion with developers about App Store review guidelines and specific judgments Apple makes based on them.

What that will look like is unclear, though. Equally unclear is whether it will lead to any actual changes in policy or enforcement. More details will likely come as the changes roll out later in the summer, but for now, Apple is mainly just telling developers that it’s listening.

Last week, Apple SVP Phil Schiller gave an interview to TechCrunch in which he defended Apple’s guidelines and said there would be no changes to the actual policies in response to the complaints about Hey’s situation. However, Apple nonetheless approved the Hey app after all, after Basecamp submitted a version of the app that followed Apple’s guidelines in a minimal way. The dispute is likely to continue.

The other new initiatives, services, and tools that Apple mentioned in its article today include an explanation of Clips and Widgets, access to new or expanded APIs and frameworks like ARKit, a new StoreKit tool for helping developers plan out monetization, details about the Xcode redesign, new capabilities in SwiftUI, expanded features for Catalyst, and information on new privacy requirements.

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YouTube flags horror video as “for kids,” won’t let creator change rating

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Enlarge / YouTube thinks the dark and creepy “Local58TV” series is for kids.

Google’s wonderful content moderation bots are at it again. After previously doing things like including suicide instructions in a children’s video, and the whole Elsagate problem, YouTube is now flagging a horror video as “for kids.” Worst of all, this is against the creator’s wishes. The video was previously flagged as for ages 18 and up, and YouTube decided it was for kids and won’t let the creator restore its content rating.

The video in question is from horror series Local58TV. The creator, Kirs Straub, checked his account over the weekend to find that his not-for-kids content has been spotted by YouTube’s content moderation AI, and automatically marked for kids.

“For kids” in this context means Google has flagged the video for inclusion in the “YouTube Kids” app, which is a separate interface for YouTube that is supposed to only show a “safe” curated slice of YouTube. The “Kids” flag also means the video is forced to comply with US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), so comments are turned off.

Local58TV has millions of views across its nine videos and is famous enough to have a Wikipedia page. The channel’s about page describes itself as “ANALOG HORROR AT 476 MHz. Unsettling shorts in the found footage/VHS aesthetic from Kris Straub.” The channel’s most popular video, “Contingency,” is a faux public service announcement from the “US Department for the Preservation of American Dignity.” The message, set to an ultra-creepy rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, declares that America has lost the war and was forced to surrender. Before the occupiers arrive though, you can “take America with you” by murder/suiciding your family. The video continues with instructions. This is obviously not the type of channel that is for kids!

YouTube, this title does not mean what you think it means.
Enlarge / YouTube, this title does not mean what you think it means.

YouTube doesn’t get the Local58TV vibe though. It automatically flagged one episode, titled “Show For Children” as for children. You can see how an AI bot might get its wires crossed from that title, but it immediately says “Not for Children” in the description, and the creator, Straub, originally set the video’s age rating as “18+” when it was uploaded.

The episode is a black-and-white cartoon where a cute cartoon skeleton wanders around a graveyard looking for a cute cartoon girlfriend skeleton, only to find horrifying, more realistic skeletons and other creatures in the open graves. At the end of the video, seemingly from depression, the cute skeleton lays down in a grave and dies, turning into a realistic skeleton. The cartoon is something an AI bot might not understand, but a human could immediately tell the unsettling video is not kid-friendly. YouTube is certainly not hurting for money having done $28.8 billion in revenue last year, but it does not hire a significant number of human moderators.

YouTube not only flagged a video explicitly marked as “inappropriate for kids” as “made for kids” it also won’t let the creator change it back. The video’s content is now labeled “Made for kids (set by YouTube)” and Straub is forced to file an appeal with YouTube to get the video’s age rating corrected.

Even if you’re using robots for moderation, it doesn’t make a ton of sense for YouTube to be in this position. For every single video upload, YouTube asks if a video is kid-friendly or not. Since YouTube already has this data, it’s not clear why it would ever try to automatically categorize videos, especially by lowering an age rating that was explicitly set as “adults only.” For something as delicate and subjective as whether or not certain content should be viewed by a kid, it seems like Google should be erring on the side of caution.

🎵 One of these things is not like the others! One of these things, doesn't belong! 🎵
Enlarge / 🎵 One of these things is not like the others! One of these things, doesn’t belong! 🎵

At press time, Straub went public with the issue 20 hours ago and it hasn’t been resolved. The “Team YouTube” Twitter account said it was “looking into” the complaint nine hours ago. You can tell the video is still flagged for children due to the disabled comments section and the “Try YouTube Kids!” ad at the bottom. You also only get suggestions for other “kids” content, which, at a glance, does not appear to feature as much death as the usual Local58TV content.

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IDC: “All eyes will be on Apple” as Meta’s VR strategy “isn’t sustainable”

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Enlarge / The Oculus Quest 2.

A recent media release from market research firm IDC predicts that Meta (the parent company of Facebook) may not be able to compete in the mixed-reality business in the long run if its strategy remains unchanged.

The media release offers a bird’s-eye view of the virtual reality hardware marketplace. In the release, IDC research manager Jitesh Ubrani said that, while “Meta continues to pour dollars into developing the metaverse, [the company’s] strategy of promoting low-cost hardware at the expense of profitability isn’t sustainable in the long run.”

A similar concern was raised by tech industry analyst Ming-Chi Kuo late last month. Kuo predicted that Meta would make moves to scale down investment in virtual reality, creating an opening for Apple and other competitors. He also wrote that Meta’s practice of selling VR headsets at a loss is unsustainable.

Currently, Meta owns 90 percent of the VR headset market, according to the IDC release. In distant second is ByteDance’s Pico, at just 4.5 percent. Overall, VR headset shipments jumped 241.6 percent year over year in the first quarter of 2022. But the industry faced significant supply issues in Q1 2021, contributing to “a favorable comparison” for this year’s Q1.

Like Kuo a couple of weeks ago, IDC research director Ramon Llamas said that “all eyes will be on Apple as it launches its first headset next year.” Apple’s headset is expected to be much more expensive than Meta’s offerings, driving up the average unit price for the product category across the board, and Llamas believes Apple’s offering “will appeal primarily to a small audience of early adopters and Apple fans.”

In other words, don’t expect the first Apple headset to ship vastly more units than Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 right out of the gate. It’s just a first step in a long-term plan to own the mixed-reality market. As several reports over the past couple of years have noted, that plan will ultimately involve low-cost AR glasses and other products that will seek to broaden the user base for mixed-reality hardware.

Apple and Meta are not the only companies working on mass-market mixed-reality hardware products. We reported in April that Amazon posted several job listings soliciting candidates who can help the company build an “advanced” AR/VR product. And in December, we learned from job listings that Google plans to build a new augmented-reality device and operating system.

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How to turn off Gmail’s new sidebar (and other ways to deal with New Gmail)

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The new desktop Gmail design started rolling out this weekend. If you use the default theme, you’ll know it has arrived when your entire Gmail interface turns blue. Gmail’s new design first entered an opt-in preview in February, and after gathering feedback and fixing a few things, Google is pushing the design out to everyone. Everyone dislikes Gmail changes, so let’s talk about what’s different and how to turn it back.

A few things have changed between now and the February preview. The most striking change is the all-blue color scheme. Google’s blog post says: “You’ll notice the new navigation now features Material You, our updated, fresh look and feel for your Google apps.” “Material You” launched with Android 12 as a color-coordinated theming system that matched your OS color scheme with your wallpaper. There’s no color-matching with Gmail’s “Material You,” though, just the blue color scheme.

Gmail still has a theme system, so you can change the color to whatever you want. Click on the settings gear in the top right and then under the “theme” section, click “view all.” The background closest to Old Gmail is the solid “soft grey” background option. To truly match the Old Gmail background, you would want “white,” but that’s not an option. (You can also pick from your Google Photos collection via a “my photos” link at the bottom, and I tried uploading a solid-white background, but trying to apply it only brings up an error message). This “theme” screen is also where you can apply Gmail’s weirdly hidden dark mode: Just pick the black background option, and everything will switch over to light text on a dark background.

The other change you might want to make involves fixing our biggest complaint with New Gmail: that new, giant sidebar. Google has long had the strategy of shoving whatever new products it wants to promote into Gmail, and the new Gmail design comes with a big, full-height sidebar featuring only four icons: one for Gmail, two for Google Chat (Google’s latest messaging app), and one for Google Meet (Google’s version of Zoom meetings). Gmail already has a sidebar, but this new design adds a second sidebar, which feels like a big banner ad for Google’s other communication apps. Thankfully, in between the February preview and this on-by-default rollout, Google apparently listened to feedback and added the option to turn off the sidebar.

This new “no-sidebar” option isn’t very obvious, but you can kill the Gmail sidebar by turning off Google Chat and Google Meet. Just head to the settings gear, then the “Customize” link under “Chat and Meet.” Un-tick both checkboxes, and the sidebar will disappear, allowing you to reclaim a lot of screen real estate. It’s strange that New Gmail works this way when Old Gmail put Gmail controls, Google Chat, and Google Meet all in a single, adjustable sidebar, but that’s what Google chose to do.

Turning off the two-sidebar layout not only makes New Gmail look a lot more like Old Gmail—it also makes the regular Gmail sidebar work the way it used to. With the two-sidebar layout, clicking the hamburger button to collapse the sidebar only shows the app switcher and not any of the Gmail controls—you see links for Google Chat and Google Meet instead of “Inbox,” “Stars,” “Spam,” etc. When you turn off Google Chat and Meet, though, collapsing the Gmail sidebar once again shows Gmail controls inside Gmail! Huzzah.

If you really don’t like the new Gmail, you still can, for at least a little while longer, opt out of the new design. Click the settings gear, and you should still see a “Go back to the original view” option. This won’t last forever, though, and you’ll have to get used to New Gmail eventually. The original version was rough, but Google seems to have listened to the complaints about the second sidebar. If you tick the right settings boxes, you’ll see that there is no longer much difference between New Gmail and Old Gmail.

Listing image by Google

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