Apple earbuds

The damage of defaults

Posted by | AirPods, algorithmic accountability, algorithmic bias, Apple, Apple earbuds, apple inc, artificial intelligence, Bluetooth, Diversity, Gadgets, headphones, hearables, iphone accessories, mobile computing, siri, smartphone, TC, voice assistant, voice computing | No Comments

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!

Hi @tim_cook, I fixed that sketch for you. Introducing #InPods — because one size doesn’t fit all 😉pic.twitter.com/jubagMnwjt

— Natasha (@riptari) March 20, 2019

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.

Stanford just launched their Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (@StanfordHAI) with great fanfare. The mission: “The creators and designers of AI must be broadly representative of humanity.”

121 faculty members listed.

Not a single faculty member is Black. pic.twitter.com/znCU6zAxui

— Chad Loder ❁ (@chadloder) March 21, 2019

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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Sorry Apple, I’m still not ready to upgrade my iPhone

Posted by | Apple, Apple earbuds, apple inc, e-waste, Gadgets, headphones, iOS, iPhone, Mobile | No Comments

Last week, in light of Apple’s revised revenue guidance, my TC colleague Ron Miller made a tongue-in-cheek apology for taking so long to upgrade his old iPhone.

He wrote that he had finally bitten the bullet and shelled out to upgrade a more than three-years-old (but still working) iPhone 6 for a shiny new iPhone XR ($750+) — deciding at the last minute to spare his wallet the full $1,000 whack for the top of the range iPhone XS. 

Ergo, even the famous Apple premium only stretches so far.

I bring even less good news for the company. I still can’t bring myself to upgrade my (still working but now heavily creaking on the battery and storage front) iPhone 6s because — and here’s my line — Apple removed the headphone jack. Which is absolutely an affront to usability and choice.

My (petite) ears do not conform to the one-size-fits-all shape Cupertino uses for its bundled earbuds. So even if the earbuds weren’t low audio quality, I still couldn’t use them. Headphones that you have to walk around holding in your ears because otherwise every twist and head turn pops them right back out again are, to put it politely, not very useful.

And, yes, this also applies to wireless AirPods — even if I wanted to give Apple more money to be forever stuck having to charge a pair of headphones before being able to use them, which frankly doesn’t sound very smart to me.

On the earbuds front, Apple does not cater to petite people, period. I have to use in-ear headphones, with replaceable rubber caps that come in a range of sizes (typically requiring the tiniest of the bunch). This means a 3.5mm jack, which lets me use my own choice of appropriately sized headphones, is not optional but essential.

A 3.5mm jack also lets me invest in higher audio quality kit, should I choose to.

Apple has other ideas, however. And judging by its own messaging at the time it ditched the headphone jack, it presumably thinks I should bravely ram its earbuds in my undersized ears anyway. Er, no thanks!

Of course, I could upgrade and just plug in a dongle to (re)convert the Lightning port into the necessary 3.5mm headphone jack. But that’s yet another dongle tax ($9) I shouldn’t have to pay.

iPhones are a premium product, after all. Having to buy extra accessories that are actually essential to get you back to where you were doesn’t feel like progress. (A better word for these irritating wallet-gougers would be “unnecessaries.”)

Add to that there is of course the sheer irritation and hassle of having to remember to have the stupid thing with you whenever you want to use your headphones.

While, for those into Apple aesthetics, dongles are of course 100 percent pure eyesore.

Also — an extra kicker — the Apple Lighting to 3.5mm converter doesn’t appear to play nice with third-party remotes. So your headphones’ physical volume control is probably going to be glitchy… (just check out all these 1-star reviews).

I won’t get started on Apple also vanishing the SD card port from the MBA. But the expense and hassle of trying to deal with that SNAFU, following a work laptop upgrade, has put me right off the prospect of “courageously” forgetting about other ports that I really need to use.

Nor am I the only TCer affronted by Apple ditching the headphone jack. My colleague Greg Kumparak wrote in December that he’s still missing the 3.5mm port two years later. “It enabled happy moments and never got in the way,” he lamented of the missing jack.

Safe to say, no one is ever going to bemoan the lack of a dongle like that.For TC’s Miller, he was finally pushed to upgrade his trusty old iPhone because of a bad battery and a glitchy recharge cable.

My own iPhone 6s has also tipped over into bad battery territory. The original battery was replaced in 2017 (after being in a faulty bunch for which Apple offered free replacements). But the other day the phone experienced its first “unexpected shutdown” — and a pop-up informed me Peak Performance Capability had been switched on.

Aka the performance management feature Apple got in some hot water with consumer groups for not being clear enough about previously. So there’s now an option to disable this in iOS settings.

I could also, of course, pay to replace the battery. Which would be a lot cheaper than a new iPhone. Or else — even cheaper — just carry a spare battery pack.

So which is less hassle to remember? A spare battery or a headphone dongle?

At least a battery pack extends the daily longevity of the handset, which feels like it’s offering some added utility (with the bonus social feature of being able to offer to juice up friends’ devices on-demand).

I’d certainly much prefer to keep a spare battery pack in my bag when I leave the house than always be trying to remember where on earth I left the dumb headphone dongle.

Ignoring Apple’s customary fraying charger cables (which can just be replaced), the other issue I’m facing with my current iPhone is storage. It’s almost full.

Apple offers cloud storage for a fee (after a small amount of free space). But I could also delete stuff I’m not using and buy an external hard drive for storing iPhone photo content (which is what’s taking up the most space) and offload the data to that.

Then I could wipe the iPhone 6s clean and start again.

Frankly the prospect of a rebooted iPhone 6s, which (battery wobbles aside) otherwise still works fine, is more appealing than paying a premium for an otherwise not so different handset which will, in certain key aspects, be less welcoming and useful to me than the one I already own.

It’s almost the more environmentally friendly choice, of course. And let’s not forget that lots of dongles = lots more unnecessary e-waste. So imposed dongle hell is bad for the planet too.

One size never fits all, but when combined with an upwardly inflating Apple premium, the Cupertino philosophy is starting to feel increasingly awkward — while “reuse don’t replace” feels more and more normal.

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Apple ditches the headphone jack on latest iPad Pro models

Posted by | AirPods, Apple, Apple earbuds, Apple Fall Event 2018, apple inc, computing, Gadgets, Google, iOS, iPad, iPhone, lightning, mobile device, tablet computers, technology | No Comments

The headphone jack is missing from the latest versions of the iPad Pro. It’s gone. Dead. Worse yet, the headphones that come with the iPhone will not work either. Apple ditched Lightning for USB-C. Instead, Apple is selling a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle for $9.

The latest iPad Pro models follows the trend lines set by the iPhone. Just like on the iPhone, the Home Button is missing, and the headphone jack is gone. It’s a concession some users might find surprising. On the iPhone, there’s obviously less real estate to integrate a large port but that’s, in theory, less of an issue in a large device like a tablet. But it makes sense. Apple tends to maximize margins by ensuring different products use a similar set of hardware. And since the iPhone hasn’t had a headphone port since 2016, it’s about time the trend hits Apple’s other mobile device.

Headphone users are not the only users left in the dark. The iPad has long been a great device for a stationary audio controller. Now, instead of simply connecting the tablet to a stereo with a 3.5mm cable, a $9 dongle is required. Want to use headphones? Apple would obviously prefer if owners use $159 AirPods though there are a handful of USB-C headphones including these from Google.

Apple Fall Event 2018

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Apple Patents Earbuds With Noise-Canceling Sensor Smarts

Posted by | Apple, Apple earbuds, Gadgets, Mobile, noise canceling, TC | No Comments

apple earbud patent Apple continues looking at ways to improve its earbuds — including potentially ditching the iconic white cables which had such a starring role in iTunes ads, back in the day. According a patent published this week, Cupertino is eyeing up making wireless earbuds which also incorporate bone-conduction technology in order to improve voice communications. Read More

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