Some thoughts on the Apple vs Epic trial results

Last week we saw the result of the Epic vs Apple trial. As expected, most of the stuff that was discussed on the lawsuit was rejected, and the judge gave Apple a pass on almost all of the accusations (also, Epic will have to pay a lot of money due to breaking contracts with Apple). Of course, Apple is claiming that they won the trial (and if you just look at the numbers, I would tend to agree). However though, there were some parts that I found quite interesting and I want to discuss here.

First, the fact that the judge did not say that Apple is not a monopoly, she just stated that Epic was not able to demonstrate that (and to me this is quite relevant, because we can see other trials in the future discussing exactly this point). Second, the judge ordered that, from now on, Apple has to allow developers including information about different pay options that work outside the Apple Store. Many people will say that Apple will not lose much money from that (and I agree), but I think that this is not the point at all. In fact, the questionable benefit split is still there, and they could even make it worse for developers by arguing that they are losing money. However, allowing developers stating that users can give them money without using the app store (and thus evading the Apple tax) is a small crack on the walled garden that iOS is, and who knows where it could end (I still think that different stores are a terrible long shot, but who knows).

During the trial, Apple stated that their model was good, and used two arguments to try to demonstrate that. First, that the tax is a way to obtain money for all the development that Apple has put onto the store. Second, that this model preserves user security, as parallel stores would promote insecure apps. While I agree on the argument that developing the store was expensive (and it still is, as maintaining and updating it entails some costs), they have already won billions of dollars with it. When is it a good moment to say “okay, that is enough, we already recovered our inversion”? Of course, Apple being a company, this moment will never arrive. The second point is so weak that even during the trial, the lawyers found it extremely hard to sustain it (I mean, you can download apps from wherever you want if you use a computer with MacOS). We saw many examples of malicious apps getting very good reviews, and not being removed from the store for months even when Apple was pretty aware of the problem. Security does not just mean privacy. If your users get lured into fake apps, or are the target of questionable marketing tricks to spend money, your system cannot be labelled as secure.

There is another related topic that I also found very interesting at the time, which is the curation process that the store follows. During the court case, there were many exhibits showing the mess it is, with many examples from developers. We even saw some internal mails showing how scam apps where buying 5-star reviews and appearing on top of the store. Also, there has been a lot of developers telling their experiences during the last months via twitter, for example. It seems quite clear to me that the process they follow now (little to no automation, human-based review) is not working (from the exhibits and the stories you find online, the reviewers are even worse than the ones you usually find in academic journal reviewing). Will they switch to more algorithm-based curation like Google does? Will they hire enough people to improve the system? Or will they come up with new solutions? This is one of the main problems users and developers get when there is just one app store on your platform: there is no competition, so there is no rush to improve these systems and people cannot escape the garden to get a better service (does it sound like monopoly practices just to me?).

So, are we going to see new trials regarding these topics? I am pretty certain we will. Is Apple applying monopolistic actions? While you can always argue that if you don’t like their store, you can choose another operating system (Android), I still feel like the way they handle the store is hurting both users and developers, and they can handle the store in that way because there is no other option in the system. It actually reminds me of the famous case against Microsoft with Internet Explorer back in the day…


If you are interested and want to dive deeper on the trial, I found the following links very informative:

Apple Won a Battle to Lose the War, on 500ish
A COMPREHENSIVE BREAKDOWN OF THE EPIC V. APPLE RULING, on the verge
Apple called its Epic ruling a ‘huge win.’ It wasn’t, on the Washington post

PS: I know this might seem impossible, but if someone at Apple reads this, I would just love to be able to type “Twitter” on the app store and get the oficial Twitter app as the first result, instead of some random advertisement shenanigans (you can try with many very famous services. I particularly like to see Amazon Prime Video as the first result when you search for Netflix). I know you do not have a big budget, but it would be a cool feature.

Some thoughts on the Protonmail case

This week there has been a lot of buzz about the fact that Protonmail (a mail provider that sold privacy above everything) tracked the IP of a climate activist and provided it to the french police, after it was requested. Of course, many people claimed that privacy should be above everything, and that Protonmail has been lying to the users for a long time now. They even changed some of the text you could read on their website regarding privacy and how they manage your data.

So, let’s talk a bit about this for a moment. I do strongly defend privacy, and I think that everyone should be able to remain anonymous not only on the internet, but everywhere on the planet. This entails a tremendous effort, because we have developed many technologies in the past few decades, but legislation has been tremendously slow, unable to follow the pace of tech development. Moreover, most of these new tools have been developed by private companies (which main objective, and usually the only one, is to get benefits). In many cases, these companies have grown so much that they stopped being national and became multinational, or basically global companies that operate all over the world. While this might seem a good thing at first glance (everyone can use their tech, no matter the country they live in), I firmly believe that the moment you go global, you have so much power that it is almost impossible to legislate your activities. We see examples of companies moving production to third-world countries to win more money, where they pay wages that are so low that people are basically slaves. In the same spirit, there are companies doing business in Europe that sell all their products through fiscal paradieses, evading taxes. During the past few years, we have started seeing countries trying to legislate these activities, with more or less success (it seems that the European Union might be on the right track now, let’s wait and see… *crossing fingers*).

So, let’s go back to protonmail. Do I think that privacy is important? For sure. Should they give information to the country in which they operate? Absolutely. You cannot ask for tech companies following the law and paying taxes but excuse them on different topics like user privacy. No company should be above the state (and ultimately, its citizens), even if I like the company and what they do. The tricky question here is: are countries always right in their claims to companies? And I fear that the answer is a clear no. In this case, France classified a climate activist as a terrorist. Let that sink for a minute. We have many other examples around the world where governments go against their citizen minorities (either for their sexuality, race, or religion). I have already posted some news in this blog about how Apple bent the knee to the China government before. Should companies bend over in those cases? Morally no, but companies are not human beings, they have no moral codes. Can companies legally fight states? Should they? It is an exceptionally tricky situation, to which I honestly do not have a solution. In any case, I think this is a very interesting (and important) problem, and for sure we will see more and more news like this one in the following years.

ProtonMail deletes ‘we don’t log your IP’ boast from website after French climate activist reportedly arrested, on the register
Important clarifications regarding arrest of climate activist, on protonmail.com
ProtonMail Amends Its Policy After Giving Up an Activist’s Data, on wired

The weekly recap (2021#17)

This week I’ve seen a lot of stuff in different fields: biology, material science, computer science, tech, art… let’s take a look:

Dig it!

Really interesting read on an experiment that has been in development since 1879. The big question here is: how long can seeds last before not being able to germinate? The answer is more tricky than you might think, because even if today we cannot make something grow, we don’t really know if in some years technology could do it… Anyway, I also liked the mystique going around the experiment, as the number of researches that know the location of the seeds is super small, and they dig out every few years in total secret.

One of the World’s Oldest Science Experiments Comes Up From the Dirt, on The New York Times

Shut up and take my money!

NFTs keep being sent, the planet keeps dying. Now half a million dollars for a meme. What a time to be alive.

The World Knows Her as ‘Disaster Girl.’ She Just Made $500,000 Off the Meme, on The New York Times

Put the glasses on!

Apple keeps doing movements with regard to user security and the data that other companies have access to. However, many people are actively fighting against it with everything they got. While its early to say, everything seems to be going into a good direction, at least when compared to the crazy habits that we adopted during the last decade. Quite interesting topic here, I will definitely follow any updates.

Apple And Tracking: A Story Of Good Guys And Bad Guys, on Forbes

Welcome to the world of… yesterday?

Amazing video of London during the 30s and the 40s, colorized by means of Artificial Inteligence. You can read more about it in the nice article on OpenCulture.


Paint it white!

New advances in fabrication keep providing materials with better and better properties. In this case, some researchers at Purdue University have achieved a material that reflects up to 98.1% of the sunlight it receives. This is pretty cool when you think about it, as having higher albedo keeps things cooler, which is something we are going to need in the near future…

The whitest paint is here – and it’s the coolest. Literally. on purdue.edu

How a good design can push you to new heights: The Power of Video Game HUDs

Mark Brown released a video this week on Game Maker’s Toolkit, his channel on videogame design. This time he talks about the design of the Heads-Up Display (HUD). Something I really enjoyed is they way he describes how the decisions you make on its design affect not only the way players approach the game, but also how they understand or interact with it. I think there is a really cool concept there that transcends to many different platforms. In my case, they way I design figures for a conference presentation or a manuscript affects the way the readers will approach the subject I try to explain, and thinking about it is key to success. It also highlights that depending on the format, you might need to use different approaches to design, as sometimes what really works for a relaxed read does not work at all for a live talk.


And that’s it for the week. Stay safe!

PS: Paddington 2 is now officially the best movie ever done. At last.

Godzilla vs Kong: some of the science behind

Recently I saw Godzilla vs Kong. I was expecting a lot of action between those two, and the movie delivered (in fact, there was not much else to see there). While is was a nice action movie to turn your brain off, there were some things that I really liked in the way they portrayed a great ape such as Kong. I am not going to enter in the topic on how big both Godzilla and Kong are, and if that is realistic or not. I already discussed the topic on cienciaoficcion.com some time ago (in Spanish).

There were two things that I liked that might be not so well-known for a lot of people: Kong using sign language and an axe. I am going to cover both in this article.

Great Apes Using Sign Language

While there are many videos on monkeys using sign language, I find the topic extremely interesting because as of today there is no clear consensus on whether great apes are really using language or they just learn some meaning by repetition/observation. In the movie, we can clearly see Kong communicating with a deaf girl, and those scenes seemed totally plausible to me (of course, just taking into account the communication process, and not the gigantic ape thing).

This is something that has been studied for decades now, and there seems to be a lot of data that indicates that there is something else besides imitation/repetition. You can see some examples of the actions that a great ape can do in the following links:

The Chimp That Learned Sign Language, on NPR.com
Great Ape Language, on wikipedia.org

Monkeys using tools

The second cool thing I want to talk about is how Kong throws a spear or swings an axe (and it really looks cool on the movie).

We can even see how he builds the spear by removing the branches of a big tree, and also how he sharpens one of the extremes. This exact behaviour has been widely reported on several primates. Of course, not for destroying a giant dome, but just to hunt for food or to collect water. You can see some really nice examples on the following videos, and some pictures on how a bonobo uses a hand-made stick to hunt for termites.

And that’s it for the film. Of course there is much more there that’s cool to see (I am not going to make any spoilers here), and while some might see it and never think about it afterwards, it is a cool movie to watch and not think about anything else for a couple hours, which given current state of the world is something to thank for, I think.

¿Dejaremos de comprar un FIFA cada año?

Hace tiempo que me ronda por la cabeza la idea de cómo ha ido cambiando el modelo de negocio en la industria del videojuego. En la última década hemos visto como el modelo digital ha ido comiéndose al modelo físico poco a poco. Las ventas han ido creciendo, impulsadas por una clara serie de ventajas. Algunas, directamente relacionadas con el cambio en los hábitos de consumo: inmediatez, muchas ofertas, precargas antes del lanzamiento, etc. Otras, debido al tipo de juegos que han ido poniéndose de moda: cuando dejas de jugar títulos para un solo jugador, con una historia lineal que tiene principio y fin, y pasas a jugar juegos 100% multijugador, donde el parche del mes cambia por completo la manera de jugar, tiene mucho menos sentido “atarte” a un disco que queda desactualizado al poco de lanzarse (o incluso antes de lanzarse, con los parches 0-day).

Si bien el debate físico/digital empieza a estar muy claro (apenas queda ya negocio físico en el mundillo), se han ido abriendo nuevos temas que me parecen muy interesantes. Uno de ellos es si los videojuegos van a seguir teniendo un modelo de venta tradicional (donde tú compras un juego y disfrutas de su contenido) o van a evolucionar a otros modelos, por ejemplo donde el juego en si es gratis, y pagas por contenido adicional (ya sean mejoras cosméticas o directamente contenido premium).

Los grandes monstruos de la industria en los últimos años no sólo han sorprendido por ser nuevos géneros (los battle royale con Fortnite a la cabeza, los MOBA con League of Legends, los auto-battler, etc.), sino por tener modelos de negocio innovadores. No importa si te gastas 0€ en jugar a Fortnite, vas a competir en igualdad de condiciones con alguien que gasta cientos o incluso miles de euros en el juego. La única diferencia es que el aspecto de su jugador va a ser mucho menos genérico que el tuyo. Lo mismo ocurre si juegas a Dota 2 o a Starcraft 2. Muchos juegos han adoptado este paradigma, donde los beneficios se obtienen bien por venta directa de cosméticos o por su obtención vía un pase de temporada (el análogo a una suscripción tipo Netflix, donde en vez de acceder a series accedes a recompensas cosméticas a medida que juegas). El mismo modelo, o muy similar, es la norma en el mercado móvil, que ya es el segmento más grande del sector.

Un caso interesante, y posiblemente muy relevante en la industria, es la saga FIFA. Todos hemos crecido con un FIFA nuevo cada septiembre, actualizando plantillas, introduciendo mejoras gráficas, una banda sonora nueva, etc. Los aficionados han comprado religiosamente un juego cada temporada para estar a la última durante décadas. Ahora bien, al principio estos juegos eran inmutables: si tu equipo fichaba nuevos jugadores en invierno, estos no aparecían hasta la siguiente entrega. A medida que las actualizaciones online fueron estableciéndose, la posibilidad de actualizar plantillas y de balancear ciertos jugadores fue siendo la norma, dejando las mejoras gráficas para cada entrega anual. Durante los últimos años, la introducción de nuevos modos de juego ha cambiado totalmente lo que significa jugar al FIFA.

La entrada del Ultimate Team combinó el juego tradicional con la apertura de packs al mas puro estilo de los cromos de nuestra infancia. A partir de ese momento, daba igual que pagases tus 50-60 € por el juego, si querías jugar en este modo tenías que abrir sobres donde salen jugadores de forma aleatoria, pagando esos sobres con dinero adicional. Dejando al margen la comparativa con las apuestas (que es un tema que daría para su propio artículo), la apertura de sobres abre una vía totalmente nueva de negocio, que de hecho ya se ha convertido en la principal fuente de ingresos de la compañía.

Este modelo me resulta muy interesante porque responde a muchos problemas. Por una parte, es una bocanada de aire fresco para el género: hay un límite al número de partidos que un jugador puede disfrutar antes de cansarse y abandonar el juego. Si introduces una nueva forma de hacer equipos, donde el jugador ya no solo necesita habilidad a la hora de jugar, sino que tiene que compensar la limitación de jugar con un número reducido y aleatorio de jugadores, crece muchísimo el umbral de hartazgo, y tu base de jugadores crece. Otro aspecto que me llama mucho la atención es que, a día de hoy, jugar a videojuegos es sólo una pequeña parte del consumo de videojuegos. Muchísima gente pasa mas tiempo viendo a otros jugar que jugando. El número de videos en Youtube o la cantidad de horas de emisión en Twitch no ha parado de crecer. Ahora bien, del mismo modo que un jugador puede jugar un número finito de veces antes de aborrecer un juego, existe también un límite de videos/directos en los que un creador de contenido puede entretener a su audiencia. Ultimate Team no solo introduce nuevas variantes para el jugador, también ha generado su propio tipo de videos: directos abriendo sobres y reacciones. Por curiosidad, he entrado al canal de DjMariiO (6.78 millones de seguidores en el momento de escribir esta entrada), y ordenando sus videos por número de visualizaciones, los únicos videos que tienen más éxito que los “abriendo sobres de Ultimate Team” son los que tiene grabados con futbolistas famosos. Esto no es sólo bueno para DjMariiO, ya que a EA también le interesa (y le beneficia) que la gente consuma contenido relacionado con su juego. Al final es una pescadilla que se muerde la cola: si los desarrolladores introducen elementos en su juego que benefician la creación de contenido en internet, los creadores de contenido van a darles publicidad gratis. Ambos van a ganar dinero con ello, el creador porque su público va a ver su contenido, y EA porque mucho público va a interesarse por su juego.

Llegados a ese punto, EA puede plantearse lo siguiente: ¿tiene sentido que siga cobrando a la gente por acceder a mi juego, y que luego siga cobrando por abrir sobres? Evidentemente en este modelo EA cobra dos veces, con lo cual a primera vista sale ganando. Ahora bien, ¿cuánto dinero obtendría si el juego base fuese 100% gratuito y sólo ganase dinero vendiendo sobres? Al hacer ese movimiento, la barrera de entrada pasa a ser 0, con lo cual tu publico aumenta de una manera colosal. Hay muchos ejemplos (los he nombrado al principio) donde claramente este movimiento sale a cuenta. No me sorprendería que EA acabase llegando a la misma conclusión, y que en un futuro no muy lejano la gente simplemente compre pases de temporada y sobres en lugar de pagar por una actualización gráfica, de las plantillas y del motor de movimientos.

Evading scientific stalemates

This week I have been thinking about a strange thing that happened in my research group. One day while I was doing my MSc, me and my colleagues we were discussing some lab results. A small change on our experimental setup provided much better images than the ones we were getting up to that point. This change, even though small, was puzzling at first. It was counter-intuitive. We quickly realized why it was improving our measurements. However, this was not the important thing. By doing that small change, our system, which at the time was just simply an imaging system, seemed to be able to tackle much more difficult experimental scenarios. We thought that we had discovered a new property of the systems we were developing. We were right.

After that initial idea, we quickly designed some experiments to verify our initial guesses. Everything seemed to work, but we were not 100% sure why. We had some general ideas, some intuitions. Our plan was to keep doing some experiments while we figured all the details. We published some papers and started thinking big. This approach could be applied to real scenarios. We started collaborating with some other groups and in the end we developed a real-life system in collaboration with them. That was published in a very good journal.

However, even though we figured out the bugging details we had at the beginning, we were never able to build a model that allowed us to predict or at least to conjecture about what could be the limits of our technique.

Fast forward ~3 years to today. We have a meeting planned for next week to discuss why our latest experiments are not providing the results we expected. After months of PhD (and MSc) students work, we are at a stalemate. Some days it seems that we are close to change something in the lab that will yield the expected improvement. Some days, after hundreds of trials, everything remains the same. Given the lack of a physical model to hold to, the group is searching with a blindfold, and I don’t think this is working at all.

If I had to make a prediction right now, I would say that the research line is dead (long live the research line!). It shouldn’t be dramatic, it is just science (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t). However, during all this process, several students joined the group and started their MSc’s and PhD’s on the topic. This could be dramatic for them. During all this time, I have been working in quite a lot of different stuff. I missed some publications, which hurt my CV. However, when something did not work, I always had different stuff to try. I think I have a wider scope of my field because of that. In the end, I have published more than enough to write my thesis.

I guess that’s a good practice: never put all your eggs in the same basket. You need to have hundreds of ideas to get a good one. Take your time to explore them, and build strong foundations where new people can construct upon without fear of falling down.