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The damage of defaults – TechCrunch

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Apple popped out a new pair of AirPods this week. The design looks exactly like the old pair of AirPods. Which means I’m never going to use them because Apple’s bulbous earbuds don’t fit my ears. Think square peg, round hole.

The only way I could rock AirPods would be to walk around with hands clamped to the sides of my head to stop them from falling out. Which might make a nice cut in a glossy Apple ad for the gizmo — suggesting a feeling of closeness to the music, such that you can’t help but cup; a suggestive visual metaphor for the aural intimacy Apple surely wants its technology to communicate.

But the reality of trying to use earbuds that don’t fit is not that at all. It’s just shit. They fall out at the slightest movement so you either sit and never turn your head or, yes, hold them in with your hands. Oh hai, hands-not-so-free-pods!

The obvious point here is that one size does not fit all — howsoever much Apple’s Jony Ive and his softly spoken design team believe they have devised a universal earbud that pops snugly in every ear and just works. Sorry, nope!

A proportion of iOS users — perhaps other petite women like me, or indeed men with less capacious ear holes — are simply being removed from Apple’s sales equation where earbuds are concerned. Apple is pretending we don’t exist.

Sure we can just buy another brand of more appropriately sized earbuds. The in-ear, noise-canceling kind are my preference. Apple does not make ‘InPods’. But that’s not a huge deal. Well, not yet.

It’s true, the consumer tech giant did also delete the headphone jack from iPhones. Thereby depreciating my existing pair of wired in-ear headphones (if I ever upgrade to a 3.5mm-jack-less iPhone). But I could just shell out for Bluetooth wireless in-ear buds that fit my shell-like ears and carry on as normal.

Universal in-ear headphones have existed for years, of course. A delightful design concept. You get a selection of different sized rubber caps shipped with the product and choose the size that best fits.

Unfortunately Apple isn’t in the ‘InPods’ business though. Possibly for aesthetic reasons. Most likely because — and there’s more than a little irony here — an in-ear design wouldn’t be naturally roomy enough to fit all the stuff Siri needs to, y’know, fake intelligence.

Which means people like me with small ears are being passed over in favor of Apple’s voice assistant. So that’s AI: 1, non-‘standard’-sized human: 0. Which also, unsurprisingly, feels like shit.

I say ‘yet’ because if voice computing does become the next major computing interaction paradigm, as some believe — given how Internet connectivity is set to get baked into everything (and sticking screens everywhere would be a visual and usability nightmare; albeit microphones everywhere is a privacy nightmare… ) — then the minority of humans with petite earholes will be at a disadvantage vs those who can just pop in their smart, sensor-packed earbud and get on with telling their Internet-enabled surroundings to do their bidding.

Will parents of future generations of designer babies select for adequately capacious earholes so their child can pop an AI in? Let’s hope not.

We’re also not at the voice computing singularity yet. Outside the usual tech bubbles it remains a bit of a novel gimmick. Amazon has drummed up some interest with in-home smart speakers housing its own voice AI Alexa (a brand choice that has, incidentally, caused a verbal headache for actual humans called Alexa). Though its Echo smart speakers appear to mostly get used as expensive weather checkers and egg timers. Or else for playing music — a function that a standard speaker or smartphone will happily perform.

Certainly a voice AI is not something you need with you 24/7 yet. Prodding at a touchscreen remains the standard way of tapping into the power and convenience of mobile computing for the majority of consumers in developed markets.

The thing is, though, it still grates to be ignored. To be told — even indirectly — by one of the world’s wealthiest consumer technology companies that it doesn’t believe your ears exist.

Or, well, that it’s weighed up the sales calculations and decided it’s okay to drop a petite-holed minority on the cutting room floor. So that’s ‘ear meet AirPod’. Not ‘AirPod meet ear’ then.

But the underlying issue is much bigger than Apple’s (in my case) oversized earbuds. Its latest shiny set of AirPods are just an ill-fitting reminder of how many technology defaults simply don’t ‘fit’ the world as claimed.

Because if cash-rich Apple’s okay with promoting a universal default (that isn’t), think of all the less well resourced technology firms chasing scale for other single-sized, ill-fitting solutions. And all the problems flowing from attempts to mash ill-mapped technology onto society at large.

When it comes to wrong-sized physical kit I’ve had similar issues with standard office computing equipment and furniture. Products that seems — surprise, surprise! — to have been default designed with a 6ft strapping guy in mind. Keyboards so long they end up gifting the smaller user RSI. Office chairs that deliver chronic back-pain as a service. Chunky mice that quickly wrack the hand with pain. (Apple is a historical offender there too I’m afraid.)

The fixes for such ergonomic design failures is simply not to use the kit. To find a better-sized (often DIY) alternative that does ‘fit’.

But a DIY fix may not be an option when discrepancy is embedded at the software level — and where a system is being applied to you, rather than you the human wanting to augment yourself with a bit of tech, such as a pair of smart earbuds.

With software, embedded flaws and system design failures may also be harder to spot because it’s not necessarily immediately obvious there’s a problem. Oftentimes algorithmic bias isn’t visible until damage has been done.

And there’s no shortage of stories already about how software defaults configured for a biased median have ended up causing real-world harm. (See for example: ProPublica’s analysis of the COMPAS recidividism tool — software it found incorrectly judging black defendants more likely to offend than white. So software amplifying existing racial prejudice.)

Of course AI makes this problem so much worse.

Which is why the emphasis must be on catching bias in the datasets — before there is a chance for prejudice or bias to be ‘systematized’ and get baked into algorithms that can do damage at scale.

The algorithms must also be explainable. And outcomes auditable. Transparency as disinfectant; not secret blackboxes stuffed with unknowable code.

Doing all this requires huge up-front thought and effort on system design, and an even bigger change of attitude. It also needs massive, massive attention to diversity. An industry-wide championing of humanity’s multifaceted and multi-sized reality — and to making sure that’s reflected in both data and design choices (and therefore the teams doing the design and dev work).

You could say what’s needed is a recognition there’s never, ever a one-sized-fits all plug.

Indeed, that all algorithmic ‘solutions’ are abstractions that make compromises on accuracy and utility. And that those trade-offs can become viciously cutting knives that exclude, deny, disadvantage, delete and damage people at scale.

Expensive earbuds that won’t stay put is just a handy visual metaphor.

And while discussion about the risks and challenges of algorithmic bias has stepped up in recent years, as AI technologies have proliferated — with mainstream tech conferences actively debating how to “democratize AI” and bake diversity and ethics into system design via a development focus on principles like transparency, explainability, accountability and fairness — the industry has not even begun to fix its diversity problem.

It’s barely moved the needle on diversity. And its products continue to reflect that fundamental flaw.

Many — if not most — of the tech industry’s problems can be traced back to the fact that inadequately diverse teams are chasing scale while lacking the perspective to realize their system design is repurposing human harm as a de facto performance measure. (Although ‘lack of perspective’ is the charitable interpretation in certain cases; moral vacuum may be closer to the mark.)

As WWW creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has pointed out, system design is now society design. That means engineers, coders, AI technologists are all working at the frontline of ethics. The design choices they make have the potential to impact, influence and shape the lives of millions and even billions of people.

And when you’re designing society a median mindset and limited perspective cannot ever be an acceptable foundation. It’s also a recipe for product failure down the line.

The current backlash against big tech shows that the stakes and the damage are very real when poorly designed technologies get dumped thoughtlessly on people.

Life is messy and complex. People won’t fit a platform that oversimplifies and overlooks. And if your excuse for scaling harm is ‘we just didn’t think of that’ you’ve failed at your job and should really be headed out the door.

Because the consequences for being excluded by flawed system design are also scaling and stepping up as platforms proliferate and more life-impacting decisions get automated. Harm is being squared. Even as the underlying industry drum hasn’t skipped a beat in its prediction that everything will be digitized.

Which means that horribly biased parole systems are just the tip of the ethical iceberg. Think of healthcare, social welfare, law enforcement, education, recruitment, transportation, construction, urban environments, farming, the military, the list of what will be digitized — and of manual or human overseen processes that will get systematized and automated — goes on.

Software — runs the industry mantra — is eating the world. That means badly designed technology products will harm more and more people.

But responsibility for sociotechnical misfit can’t just be scaled away as so much ‘collateral damage’.

So while an ‘elite’ design team led by a famous white guy might be able to craft a pleasingly curved earbud, such an approach cannot and does not automagically translate into AirPods with perfect, universal fit.

It’s someone’s standard. It’s certainly not mine.

We can posit that a more diverse Apple design team might have been able to rethink the AirPod design so as not to exclude those with smaller ears. Or make a case to convince the powers that be in Cupertino to add another size choice. We can but speculate.

What’s clear is the future of technology design can’t be so stubborn.

It must be radically inclusive and incredibly sensitive. Human-centric. Not locked to damaging defaults in its haste to impose a limited set of ideas.

Above all, it needs a listening ear on the world.

Indifference to difference and a blindspot for diversity will find no future here.



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Google isn’t moving Legacy G Suite users again, despite admin console warnings

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Google

Grandfathered-in “Legacy G Suite” users got a scare recently when another new “transition” message started popping up in the Google Admin console. “The transition to Google Workspace has started,” said the new message that suddenly appeared in people’s accounts. This was after Legacy G Suite users went through a contentious transition last year, where Google’s opening position involved shutting down their accounts if people didn’t start paying, but eventually, it was talked into not doing that. A Google spokesperson tells us the Workspace transition message was “a bug that surfaced an old banner from earlier in the process last year, and our team is working on removing it. More changes are not happening at this time, and those who previously opted-in for personal use are not expected to take any further action.”

We’ve received a few questions about this message, and this Reddit post has people wondering what the deal is, but it’s just a bug. That’s great because Legacy G Suite users have gone through enough already. To recap, Google currently offers businesses the option to pay a monthly fee for a Google/Gmail account that ends in a custom domain name instead of @gmail.com. Today this is called “Google Workspace,” but due to Google’s constant rebrands, it was first called “Google Apps for your Domain,” then “Google Apps,” and then “G Suite.” Google’s custom domain service was not always paywalled and not always exclusively aimed at businesses—it was free from 2006 to 2012. Google even pitched these accounts to families as a way to let everyone have similar email addresses. Some people did so, which means today they are getting a paid service for free.

Don't believe a word of this message.
Enlarge / Don’t believe a word of this message.

Last year, the Google accounting department turned its Eye of Sauron on these long-term users and threatened to take away their nearly 16-year-old accounts if they didn’t start paying a business rate for these formerly free and not necessarily business accounts. After a public outcry, Google eventually left these “Legacy G Suite accounts” alone after making users confirm that they were using their accounts for “non-business” purposes. After that, everything was settled.

Legacy G Suite users are specifically not a part of “Workspace,” which is a paid service. So this new message that popped up yesterday suggests they would have moved to another new service. Even though Google says it’s an error that users could see this message, actually following the prompt would lead you to another error message about “Google Workspace for personal use” which is a product that does not exist. Workspace has tiers like “Business Starter,” and grandfathered-in users are on “Legacy G Suite”, but “Workspace for personal use” is not a thing. Apparently, this was all the beta branding for the original plan last year, and somehow it all got published yesterday.

Enlarge / “Google Workspace for personal use” is not a thing that exists.

Lee Hutchinson

Google Workspace for personal use would be a great product for Google to sell, by the way. We’ve complained before that while Apple and Microsoft both sell custom domain email services to consumers at a reasonable rate, Google does not, only offering business email at much more expensive rates. A big part of the Legacy G suite problem is that these personal users have nowhere to go inside Google.

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Apple Q1 earnings miss the mark almost across the board

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Enlarge / Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Apple reported its earnings for Q1 2023 today, and it was one of the company’s poorest-performing quarters in recent years. It was the company’s biggest decline since 2016 and the first since 2019. Overall revenue was down more than 5 percent year-over-year as the company failed to match sales from the same quarter last year across most of its hardware categories.

iPhone revenue was $65.78 billion for the quarter, down 8.17 percent year over year. Similarly, “Other Products”—which includes the Watch, AirPods, and some other outliers—was down 8.3 percent year over year at $13.48 billion. The real underperformer was the Mac, which was down almost 30 percent at $7.74 billion.

The two parts of the business that did grow were services— which include things like Apple Music and TV+, iCloud, and AppleCare—and the iPad. Services were up 6.4 percent at $20.77 billion, while the iPad grew 29.66 percent to $9.4 billion.

CEO Tim Cook said in the company’s earnings call that Apple faces a “challenging macroeconomic environment.” Besides that, he named two other main factors behind the down quarter: production and supply issues in China and a strong US dollar. Apple struggled to meet consumer demand across many of its products, with shipping sometimes running several weeks behind. Cook said that while Apple might have met analysts’ estimates had the supply issues not been a factor, it’s impossible to know for sure.

On the bright side, Apple says it has resolved many of those supply problems for now and that there are now 2 billion active Apple devices in users’ hands worldwide. And obviously, $117.15 billion in revenue for the quarter is still huge, even if it didn’t meet expectations or match last year.

Apple declined to give guidance on what it expects for the next quarter. It has not done so for any quarter since the pandemic began in 2020.

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Razer’s $280 mouse is covered in gaping holes 

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Razer

There are a lot of cookie-cutter mice out there that, although made by different manufacturers, have the same shapes and features but rely on mild changes in color or sensor specs to differentiate themselves. So when Razer announced the Viper Mini Signature Edition (SE) today, a wireless mouse that looks like it forgot to get dressed, we took notice.

The Viper Mini SE uses a magnesium alloy chassis “exoskeleton,” as Razer describes it. Lines of dark gray stretch across the mouse’s palm area, creating a web-like design and bold, gaping holes. Razer’s using an extreme take on the honeycomb design, which has holes drilled into a mouse’s chassis to reduce weight. However, the typical honeycomb mouse, like the Glorious Model I, has many more holes that are smaller, while the Viper Mini SE has holes that are so big, it looks like you could poke your finger through them.

It'll be easy for dust to fall into those openings.
Enlarge / It’ll be easy for dust to fall into those openings.

Razer

At first look, I’m immediately concerned about the mouse’s durability. Despite what Razer claims, I still think I’m more likely to break a mouse with 18 holes in it than one with none. Large openings can also attract dust and debris, but bigger holes should make the mouse easier to clean with, for example, an air blower than a  honeycomb mouse topped with more, smaller openings.

Razer graciously gives the mouse a three-year warranty, which is one year longer than it usually gives mice. We’ll be keen to check out reviews and long-term experiences with the Viper Mini SE to see how it fares, especially among power users, like gamers, who tend to use their mice aggressively.

From a glass-half-full perspective, the cavernous mouse could have the benefit of helping the hand on top of it stay cool. With less contact between the user’s hand and the electronics, plus more air flow, users may find their hands clamming up less easily during long hours of intense use. Razer didn’t go so far as to install a cooling fan in the mouse like Marsback’s Zephyr, though.

Big holes help make the Viper Mini SE Razer’s lightest mouse. It’s 1.73 ounces, which is about 30 percent lighter than the Viper Mini (2.15 ounces) with the same form factor and nearly identical dimensions. It’s still not the lightest mouse around, however. For example, Cooler Master’s MM720 is also 0.11 pounds, and Finalmouse has sold mice weighing as little as 1.48 ounces.

With the weight savings gained, it would have been nice if Razer added buttons to the mouse’s right side so it could be truly ambidextrous, like the Razer Viper Ultimate.

Razer's mouse uses a 2.4 GHz USB-A dongle.
Enlarge / Razer’s mouse uses a 2.4 GHz USB-A dongle.

Razer

Razer used magnesium alloy for the mouse because it had the preferred “strength-to-weight ratio.” Plastic, it said, was less sturdy with drilled holes and had minimal weight reduction comparatively. And titanium, while lightweight, stronger, and sturdier, had fabrication limitations. Finally, fabrication limits, plus a heavier weight than plastic, precluded Razer from making the Viper Mini SE with carbon fiber.

According to Razer’s press release, the mouse is made “with an injection-molded exoskeleton that is then CNC machined and polished. The exoskeleton shell then undergoes passivation to reduce any susceptibility to corrosion, after which it is painted and assembled. At each step, each unit is meticulously inspected…”

The Razer Viper Mini SE targets gamers seeking a mouse that’s as easy as possible to flick around their desk. But a featherweight mouse with a high dots-per-inch (DPI) spec (up to 30,000 DPI in the Viper Mini SE’s case) can also appeal to users of increasingly high-resolution monitors and multi-screen setups, or those who find their arm or hand getting tired while mousing.

If you’re looking for a lot of chassis for your buck, this isn’t it. The wireless peripheral will cost a whopping $280 when it debuts February 11.

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