Adrian Hon reminded me of something I’ve been puzzling over for a few months, in the wake of the Mystery of the Missing Amazon Receipts:
Chances are you’ve bought something from Amazon in the last few months (yes, we are all hypocrites, also there’s a pandemic on). Try searching your email for one of those orders. […]
No luck? You aren’t alone: Amazon stopped including item details in order confirmation and shipping notification emails a few months ago. They just show the price and order date now. For all its faults, Amazon has pretty good customer service, which makes this user-hostile change baffling to understand. Sure, you can still see your orders on Amazon’s website and download a CSV, but it’s far more cumbersome than searching your email; and if you’re a power-user, you can say goodbye to automatically generating to-do tasks from Amazon emails.
The mystery isn’t about why Amazon are doing this: I’m just wondering why I seem to have missed out?
Even as I’ve been reading about the content of Amazon’s emails changing over the last few months, my Amazon order confirmation emails have continued to include details of what I’ve ordered.1 Some of the commenters at Michael Tsai’s blog have suggested this might be a function of whether you’re using Gmail (nope) or whether you’re ordering through a business account (nope). Perhaps my Amazon UK account is just at the tail end of a very long queue and they’re destined to catch up with me, or perhaps it’s that all my recent orders from them have been for virtual items 2 not requiring postage so temporarily they’re being generated by a different sub-system that has yet to be updated in line with the new policy.3 Perhaps Amazon have decided that I buy from them so infrequently and spend so little with them that my data isn’t worth collecting. 4
In fairness, the bulk of Adrian Hon’s post is not about Amazon’s emails: it’s about the attitude of giant tech companies to the ownership of data that’s gathered through their systems and in particular the ramifications of that attitude to content collection and ownership of data if someone manages to get us all wearing AR spectacles that capture whatever’s in our field of view all day long as a matter of course. This topic needs to be thought about now, ready for the coming war for ownership of the data we look at every day.
Twenty years ago such an article might have ended with a plea that the IT giants do the right thing and not lay claim to ownership of the fruits of their users’ activity.5 In 2020 it ends with the conclusion that making the IT companies do the right thing is going to require regulatory action from the relevant governments, hopefully along with some degree of regulatory convergence.6
A reasonable strategy given where we’re starting from, but a battle destined to lead us all up several very steep hills before we’re done.
- I’m afraid I fail the power user test by not having bothered to set up a shortcut to automagically transfer the item details into OmniFocus for me to check off when the order arrives. I know I should do this because I can, but selecting the details of the item and using copy-and-paste (or the Share sheet) is good enough for me. I fear my lifetime stock of whatever enzyme drives some of us to be power users who get a buzz out of spending an hour writing a function to save 0.5 seconds per run is starting to run low and the extra effort just doesn’t feel worth the bother. (Yes, I should probably be banned from consuming Mac Power Users and Brett Terpstra‘s site if I can’t be bothered to follow through on life hacks like this. Sue me!) My main gripe with the emails I get from Amazon right now (at least until their change in email policy catches up with me so I don’t have the data to hand) is that for books Amazon include the title but not the author name. Given that I find myself copying this data into my accounts, it would be nice to capture the author name too at the same time as the title. Sometimes looking back I’ll see a title and not be able to bring the author’s name to mind, especially if the entry is a few years old. At 57 I should probably just get used to this mild forgetfulness, but it’d be so easy to include title and author in the email and let me capture all the relevant information in one go. (As of now, I just get round this by manually typing the author name in my note, like a caveman.) Using a portable computer as a backup brain is a big part of why I got into portable computers all those years ago when a Psion Series 3 or a Palm Pilot was the state of the art: now I’m on my second iPad Mini it’s a damn shame if our data sources are working against us by omitting information that they have right there! ↩
- Kindle books and the odd film rental through Prime Video. My last Amazon order that required a physical delivery was in December 2019, and the email included details of the item (Fridges Thermometer AIGUMI Digital Waterproof Fridge Freezer Thermometer With Easy to Read LCD Display and Max/ (2Pack-White)) ↩
- It’s weird that Amazon don’t seem to have announced this change. Did they think nobody would notice? Is this the first step in a process which ends with Amazon offering a shiny new order-status-monitoring app (Amazon Delivers?) that will pull data from Amazon’s servers and both provide all the statistical analysis of your order patterns that any geek could ask for while also integrating with your device’s reminders system to generate messages when an item is due to arrive? Proper power users will (reasonably enough) demand that the app allow them to feed this data to their chosen To Do app automagically. However, as long as the Amazon Delivers app provides a quick, simple list of items due most users will (also reasonably enough) be satisfied with that and (less reasonably, but understandably) will not care that the Amazon Delivers approach keeps that data about their orders safely inside Amazon’s app, where Amazon thinks it belongs. ↩
- A question for later consideration, in the dark and empty hours as I wait for sleep to catch up with me. Is the notion that my spending on Amazon might be so negligible that Amazon can’t even be bothered to try to protect it from data-scrapers a win or a loss for me? ↩
- From a selfish point of view: how will governments deal with their staff wearing AR goggles to work? Will civil servants be banned from wearing them in the office unless they’re an official set configured to disable the content-scraping feature? Will our office WiFi block access to the servers associated with whichever tech giant wins the AR Wars? Will all AR goggles from reputable manufacturers include a feature that they visibly indicate that they’re doing content-scraping? Come to that, how will all that operate in a world where many of us work from home? Or will there just be a law banning official information from being harvested by AR goggles that can be selectively enforced according to the whims of the government about what’s in the national interest that week? ↩
- The last thing we need is a world where the EU takes one approach and the USA takes another and China takes yet a third, and whatever remains of the UK by then is left to choose between them. ↩
Matt Webb has been thinking big thoughts about the future of the web:
It’s hot and it’s lunchtime, so let’s pretend I’m in charge of major global technical infrastructure!
I wrote about how I would improve RSS the other day (because being able to subscribe to text is super neat, but it’s so arcane compared to smartphone apps). And after writing that, it occurred to me that the problem is wider:
The user experience of the web itself sucks.
It is less pleasant to use a web browser than it is to use apps. But that’s because the browser-makers (Google and Apple, primarily) have silently abdicated their responsibility to make browsing good. I get it, they’re conflicted, they’re also running super profitable app stores.
As I read this I was expecting it to turn into a bunch of impractical suggestions, but in fact the three concrete suggestions he puts forward…
- Web browsers capturing details of newsletters published by every site visited over the last 24 hours and an interface that would let you easily subscribe to those newsletters;
- A facility for the browser to capture and make available text entered into web forms (the better to avoid losing comments that you started but didn’t finish);1
- Browsers prominently displaying stats on how often the current page has been retweeted/shared.
… seem like worthwhile enhancements. I suspect I’d turn #3 off pretty quickly,2 but the other two I’d very much like to see. More generally, I miss the days when OmniWeb for OS X was a live project, one that offered way more flexibility in how the user wanted to browse the web than the then-current version of Safari did.
But then, thinking fond thoughts about early versions of Safari is just a sign that I’m getting old. Next thing you know I’ll be posting about how much more fun Usenet was than Twitter and Reddit.
- I have a vague recollection that there used to be an extension for Safari on MacOS X that let you tell Safari what standalone text editor you wanted to use to compose text in web forms. I don’t remember the details, and I’m unclear on whether it also offered to apply some structure to saving off whatever content you’d drafted or just left that to the user to figure out for themselves, but I’m sure that was something that used to be in the world a decade or so back until some change to how Safari handled extensions made it go away. ↩
- This one could easily end up cluttering up the interface unless the browser user got to select which social media they wanted to see numbers about. ↩
M.G. Siegler ponders Netflix’s ability to get us watching, even when the content isn’t all that special (sparked by his watch of The Old Guard, but prompted by the wider pattern of so-so content on the platform:
The real risk here is that the audience starts to associate Netflix with mediocre films. It may not matter now — and certainly not right now, in the time of COVID. But down the line, if the audience can’t trust that what Netflix is putting in front of them is good, they’ll lose faith.
But then, Netflix might well decide that they’d much rather end up replacing the multiplex cinema business and showing stuff that doesn’t get the critical plaudits, rather than replacing the arthouse cinemas where critical praise doesn’t necessarily translate into dollars and cents. This might be a problem for Netflix, but only if one of the other major streaming platforms finds itself with an HBO-like reputation for excellent content.1
It’s less about Netflix customers losing faith, more about their having somewhere else to put their faith in.
- Apple TV+ would like that to be them, but even if you’re an Apple optimist they’ve clearly got a long, long way to go yet. Disney would like to step into the HBO role but they own such a large chunk of the US studios that they might have to hive off a chunk of their more refined content and put it out under a different brand to make that stick. Amazon’s algorithms probably don’t care either way what Prime Video subscribers are watching so long as the Amazon Prime subscription income keeps rolling in. ↩
My experience of team working from home bears precisely no relationship to this. And yet, I still can’t help but find it entertaining and endearing.
So, well played, Apple’s marketing team. Well played indeed.
Now that he’s left Amazon, Tim Bray can express heretical thoughts about the company’s priorities out loud, in public:
On a Spring 2019 walk in Beijing I saw two street sweepers at a sunny corner. They were beat-up looking and grizzled but probably younger than me. They’d paused work to smoke and talk. One told a story; the other’s eyes widened and then he laughed so hard he had to bend over, leaning on his broom. I suspect their jobs and pay were lousy and their lives constrained in ways I can’t imagine. But they had time to smoke a cigarette and crack a joke. You know what that’s called? Waste, inefficiency, a suboptimal outcome. Some of the brightest minds in our economy are earnestly engaged in stamping it out. They’re winning, but everyone’s losing.
Bray’s post goes on to reference troubling reports of shortcomings in Amazon’s corporate attitude to the health and safety of warehouse staff.
I wonder if Amazon would respond by pointing out that this is all just a stopgap until they can replace almost all of those weak, imprecise humans with much more efficient and meticulous robots.1 Instead they seem to rely on a mix of buying local political influence and being economical with the truth to avoid damage to their image with customers, just like old-fashioned capitalists do.
It might well be that a decade or two from now Jeff Bezos will be too preoccupied with beating Elon Musk in the campaign for First Speaker of the Martian Assembly to care about what’s happening back on Terra, where Amazon will still be relying on the vast, cheap supply of humans desperate to earn a living doing the bits of a warehouse job that it’s still too expensive and complicated and impractical to computerise, while still holding over everyone’s head the threat that a computer could replace them any day now. Or he could be yet another billionaire back on Earth contemplating how much he’s going to have to pay for the private army he’ll need to defend his castle from the socialists who can’t see that he just wanted to improve the lot of book buyers everywhere and are determined to be ungrateful that he happened to make some money along the way.
- Never mind that deploying robots at the scale they’d need to do that would both cost a great deal and potentially burn up a lot of political capital. ↩
It’s almost as if the manufacturers of smart speakers want everyone to get used to accidental activations:
Voice assistants in smart speakers analyze every sound in their environment for their wake word, e.g., «Alexa» or «Hey Siri», before uploading the audio stream to the cloud. This supports users’ privacy by only capturing the necessary audio and not recording anything else. The sensitivity of the wake word detection tries to strike a balance between data protection and technical optimization, but can be tricked using similar words or sounds that result in an accidental trigger.
Logically, there was no good reason why yet another branch of human endeavour shouldn’t fall to the energy of an entrepreneur prepared to apply modern technology and a Can-Do attitude to the problem. That was the theory, anyway:
While tailors have figured out a formula for men’s suits, bra tailoring is a younger technology with a smaller market and far fewer competitors. It used to be the case that tailors would hone their craft, keep their tailoring knowledge as a trade secret, and pass on their knowledge of pattern-making to apprentices.
But bras, coming after the Industrial Revolution, had no such history of custom tailoring. Pattern-makers were accustomed to working with industry fit models, altering their patterns as necessary, and grading their patterns using rules. They were not accustomed to making a precise pattern based on measurements on the body.
I was brash, and thought that with the right team, we could accelerate centuries of learning into six months and a trade secret. We hired professionals to make precise patterns for 20 beta users. Our theory was that this data would enable us to crack the code.
[Narrator: They didn’t crack the code.]
I’m torn between thinking that the Paper Phone is a neat little idea and the proposition that as long as your personal data is in the Cloud then the trick is to arrange things so that you have access to it wherever you are via whatever devices are at hand so you don’t need to waste paper printing a daily digest:
Or is it all rendered irrelevant because you’re destined to end up using a blank sheet of paper or a dictaphone to note down stuff that you’ll need to add to your electronic To Do list and so on when you get back home, so why not just carry round a device that lets you do that?
In practice this is a purely theoretical exercise for me for now as a) I’m firmly in the grasp of Apple’s ecosystem, and b) I don’t even have a printer to hand in my flat to [print out that list. I wonder how long it’d take Apple1 to incorporate a feature like this in iPadOS?
[Via One Thing Well]
- Or will some enterprising third party put up an app to do this? Will we end up with half a dozen clones of this idea as different people have different propositions about how best to arrange all this data in the minimum number of printed pages? ↩
Part of me really hopes that Apple end up shamelessly stealing the idea of what to do next with the tablet form factor from Microsoft rather than Samsung. Now we’re in the process of the transition to iPadOS, it’d be good to see the new branch of the iOS project explore something that’s not tied to a phone’s form factor.1
What’s mind-boggling is that Neo isn’t even a new idea — Microsoft first conceived of a dual-screen, foldable tablet all the way back in 2009 with the “Courier” project, which was a failed attempt to bring similar ideas to life. The Courier is legendary in the technology industry as a dream of how computing could look in the future, but most of us assumed the ideas had died when the project did.
Like many Microsoft projects, the company was simply dreaming too early. […]
Barring the industry waiting a few years to see whether Samsung et al can refine their folding-screen technology into something much more durable (and ideally much cheaper, so that the more-screen-space models don’t just become the premium option for the few who can afford them), it looks to me as if in the medium term Microsoft’s coordinating-two-screens-by-using-clever-software-rather-than-insisting-on-a-seamless-single-screen approach might well be the better way to go. As devices come with more real estate everyone’s going to have to figure out how to use that space best, beyond using it to display films and other visually-pleasing content in full-window apps.
Even on my current hardware2 I’ve appreciated the ability to use Slide Over and Split View and to drag-and-drop content from one app to another.3 Nevertheless, that can’t possibly be the end of the story. I have a sneaky feeling4 that one day the iOS family will sprout an always-on-display task switching/launching app much more flexible than what we currently put up with. Maybe that’s what my second screen is destined to be filled with. Only time (and a period when the different platforms are feeling free to experiment with the form factor and what that frees up) will tell.