Vergecast: iCloud encryption, Sonos’ apology, and folding phones

The Vergecast is back in the studio to talk about the location of math. The Verge’s Nilay Patel, Dieter Bohn, and Paul Miller are joined by Russell Brandom to dig into the issues surrounding encryption on the iPhone, the Jeff Bezos phone hack, and more.

A big theme this week is a lot of people realizing things about technology that seemed like changes but, in fact, were not. Apple’s system for what is and isn’t accessible on iCloud and iMessage backups hasn’t changed, but everybody’s awareness of how complicated it can be has. Luckily, Russell has a handle on all of it.

We also discussed the apology from Sonos CEO Patrick Spence over the end-of-life announcement for some old products. Same situation: the apology didn’t change Sonos’ plans, but what has changed is the company finally stopped making face-palming mistakes when it tried to communicate to its customers about them.

Paul also bought back his completely consistent and never-missed segment, and we talked a bit about how we’re getting more excited about folding phones than we expected to be at this point in the year. Pull your car over, update your podcast app, and give it a listen.

Stories discussed in this episode:

  • Trump demands Apple unlock iPhones: ‘They have the keys to so many criminals and criminal minds’
  • How to FBI-proof your encrypted iPhone backups
  • The FBI has asked Apple to unlock another shooter’s iPhone
  • Apple rejects AG Barr’s claim that it didn’t assist with Pensacola shooting probe
  • Can Apple live up to Apple’s privacy ads?
  • Saudi Arabian prince reportedly hacked Jeff Bezos’ phone with malicious WhatsApp message
  • Senator asks Jeff Bezos for more information on Saudi-linked hack
  • PSA: Never open a WhatsApp message from the crown prince of Saudi Arabia
  • Here’s a first look at Android on Microsoft’s dual-screen Surface Duo
  • Microsoft’s software plan for the Duo Android phone is surprisingly realistic
  • Motorola’s foldable Razr will launch on February 6th after delay
  • Cruise driverless taxi: no steering wheel, no pedals
  • Sonos will stop providing software updates for its oldest products in May
  • Comcast plans price hikes for cable customers as it looks ahead to streaming Peacock launch
  • Google’s ads just look like search results now

How much longer will we trust Google’s search results?

Happy Friday to you! I have been reflecting a bit on the controversy du jour: Google’s redesigned search results. Google is trying to foreground sourcing and URLs, but in the process it made its results look more like ads, or vice versa. Bottom line: Google’s ads just look like search results now.

I’m thinking about it because I have to admit that I don’t personally hate the new favicon -plus-URL structure. But I think that might be because I am not a normal consumer of web content. I’ve been on the web since the late ‘90s and I parse information out of URLs kind of without thinking about it. (In fact, the relative decline of valuable information getting encoded into the URL is a thing that makes me sad.)

I admit that I am not a normal user. I set up custom Chrome searches and export them to my other browsers. I know what SERP means and the term kind of slips out in regular conversation sometimes. I have opinions about AMP and its URL and caching structure. I’m a weirdo.

As that weirdo, Google’s design makes perfect sense and it’s possible it might do the same for regular folk. The new layout for search result is ugly at first glance — but then Google was always ugly until relatively recently. I very quickly learned to unconsciously take in the information from the top favicon and URL-esque info without it really distracting me.

…Which is basically the problem. Google’s using that same design language to identify its ads instead of much more obvious, visually distinct methods. It’s consistent, I guess, but it also feels deceptive.

Recode’s Peter Kafka recently interviewed Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti, and Peretti said something really insightful: what if Google’s ads really aren’t that good? What if Google is just taking credit for clicks on ads just because people would have been searching for that stuff anyway? I’ve been thinking about it all day: what if Google ads actually aren’t that effective and the only reason they make so much is billions of people use Google?

The pressure to make them more effective would be fairly strong, then, wouldn’t it? And it would get increasingly hard to resist that pressure over time.

I am old enough to remember using the search engines before Google. I didn’t know how bad their search technology was compared to what was to come, but I did have to bounce between several of them to find what I wanted. Knowing what was a good search for WebCrawler and what was good for Yahoo was one of my Power User Of The Internet skills.

So when Google hit, I didn’t realize how powerful and good the PageRank technology was right away. What I noticed right away is that I could trust the search results to be “organic” instead of paid and that there were no dark patterns tricking me into clicking on an ad.

One of the reasons Google won search in the first place with old people like me was that in addition to its superior technology, it drew a harder line against allowing paid advertisements into its search results than its competitors.

With other search engines, there was the problem of “paid inclusion,” which is the rare business practice that does exactly what the phrase means. You never really knew if what you were seeing was the result of a web-crawling bot or a business deal.

This new ad layout doesn’t cross that line, but it’s definitely problematic and it definitely reduces my trust in Google’s results. It’s not so much paid inclusion as paid occlusion.

Today, I still trust Google to not allow business dealings to affect the rankings of its organic results, but how much does that matter if most people can’t visually tell the difference at first glance? And how much does that matter when certain sections of Google, like hotels and flights, do use paid inclusion? And how much does that matter when business dealings very likely do affect the outcome of what you get when you use the next generation of search, the Google Assistant?

And most of all: if Google is willing to visually muddle ads, how long until its users lose trust in the algorithm itself? With this change, Google is becoming what it once sought to overcome: AltaVista.


More from The Verge

I trained with Tonal, the ‘Peloton for weightlifting’

Excellent review from Natt Garun.

Tonal is unique in this field for its focus on weight training instead of cardio. Think of the machine like a slimmer, low-profile Bowflex that mounts flush against the wall rather than taking up an entire corner of your room. With arms that can be adjusted and folded away, it’s also a bit less likely to end up as an expensive coat rack.

Apple Watch gym partnerships give you perks for working out

Google I/O 2020 will kick off on May 12th

Every year Google does a little online game or coding challenge and every year it’s solved really quickly. This year Google leaned into that and it seems to have worked.

It’s a little too early for me to guess what we can expect at I/O this year. Google itself often doesn’t decide until the last minute. Given everything that’s happened in the past year, though, I’l say this: if the entire keynote was just a frank discussion of Google’s privacy policies and how it intends to be more transparent about what data is has on us and how we can control it, I wouldn’t complain.

How to FBI-proof your encrypted iPhone backups

Barbara Krasnoff had to do way more legwork to get the full, accurate story here than you might think just by reading this. I do think Apple could do a much better job simplifying the settings for people who don’t want Apple to have the keys for their backups. But I also think writing a similar guide for Android would be similarly complicated.

Samsung’s T7 Touch puts a speedier SSD in a smaller, more secure case

Comcast plans price hikes for cable customers as it looks ahead to streaming Peacock launch

Price hikes? Check. Reduced investment in building out broadband infrastructure? Check. Data caps? Check. Exempting your own streaming video service from data caps? Check. Huge cable company shamelessly exploiting the fact that net neutrality is dead and doing the very thing that net neutrality opponents promised wouldn’t happen, assuming that either nobody would notice or at the very least nobody would connect the dots between this and the lack of regulation that allowed it? Check check and check again. (Disclosure: NBCU is an investor in The Verge’s parent company, Vox Media.)

Everything you need to know about the new coronavirus in China

Samsung’s next foldable may have an ‘ultra thin’ glass display

If this turns out to be true, it’s a huge deal. And it will be a huge problem for Motorola, whose Razr will only have been on the market for five days when Samsung announces the Z Flip on the 11th.

Maybe it’s just because it’s a new form factor, but I’m getting more and more excited about folding phones. For years we’ve watched phones get bigger and less pocketable and for whatever reason (the reason is probably that they don’t sell well), nobody is making high-quality small phones anymore.

Foldables aren’t exactly that, but they’re at least heading in the right direction. I will gladly take a little more thickness on the Z axis (maybe THAT is why it’s called the Z Flip!) if it means having a big-screen phone that doesn’t stick out of my pocket.

Sonos CEO apologizes for confusion, says legacy products will work ‘as long as possible’

It’s notable that nothing actually changed here policy-wise: Sonos is still going to try to support these speakers, it is still admitting it won’t be able to provide software updates, and it will still try to figure out a way to cordon these legacy products off so they don’t hold newer products back in people’s home.

Okay, one very important thing has changed: Sonos admitted it really screwed up the communication around these changes. It’s been a mess since the recycling mode first came to light. You can’t unring a bell, but it’s at least good to admit you screwed up in the first place.

Microsoft’s software plan for the Duo Android phone is surprisingly realistic

Welcome back to Processor, a mostly daily newsletter mostly about computers, by which I mostly mean the consumer electronics industry at large. I’m Dieter and if you already know all of the above, thanks for sticking around. If you’re new, welcome!

I’m going to leave the analysis of the truly bonkers story of Jeff Bezos’ phone hack to Casey Newton’s newsletter, The Interface. Go subscribe now. He’s drafting it as I write these words and it contains Very Practical Advice like “Never open a WhatsApp message from the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.”

For me and my personal obsession with the various ways companies are trying to reinvent the computer and computer interfaces, the most exciting story of the day was Microsoft releasing a bunch of software tools for its upcoming dual-screen Android phone, the Duo. It includes the necessary bits to build Android apps that are aware of the hinge and its various positions and even some proposed web standards so web pages can do the same.

I promise the previous very nerdy paragraph has implications that matter to more than just Android developers.

I am really into Microsoft’s developer tools for a lot of reasons — especially the various proposals for making the web work better on dual-screen devices, which in theory could help everybody. But the most important thing is the overall context: Microsoft has the horse and cart in the right order. It’s trying to get the software right before it releases the hardware.

There have been two big problems with foldable devices thus far: 1. the screens are too fragile and 2. Android is not great on tablets and so the windowing systems have been kind of bad. (And, well, a third big problem is that they have been super expensive.)

I have no idea when the fragility thing will be fixed, but I like that Microsoft isn’t bothering with a flexible display. It compromised on whiz-bang hardware to make something more durable and, in many ways, elegant. But the trade-off is that there’s a big ol’ seam between the Duo’s two screens. That’s the cart.

The horse, then, is how the software is designed to deal with that trade-off. (This is a bad metaphor because I don’t know what goes in the cart but we’re in too deep to turn back now.) The details of Microsoft’s answer to “how does Android work on a dual-screen device” all seem really smart.

Windows Central’s Zac Bowden installed the emulator and made a little video showing how windows move around and it’s refreshingly simple. Apps open on a single screen, you go into the multitasking view and drag them to move them across to the other screen, or you move them over the seam for some kind of split-screen.

There are different ways to split-screen: sometimes there’s a list on one side and details on the other, sometimes there’s two pages like on a book, and sometimes the canvas covers the whole thing and you just have to deal with the seam.

Image: Microsoft

All that is fine, but it’s not the smart part. Just because Microsoft appears to have created an elegant SDK doesn’t mean that anybody will actually use it. We’ve seen Microsoft try and fail to woo mobile developers before. RIP Windows Phone, we still miss ya.

But for the Duo, it’s even worse than that. We’ve watched Google struggle to get Android developers to make better big-screen layouts for their apps for years to disappointing results. Android tablets have gone the way of the dodo and Android apps on Chrome OS are best used in small doses.

So the way Microsoft appears to have dealt with that reality is one reason that I’m actually more hopeful today than I was yesterday about the Duo’s chances. That’s because even if literally nobody customizes their Android apps for the Duo, it should still work pretty well. Instead of pinning the Duo’s chances on the nearly impossible task of getting Android developers to invest resources in a completely new and untested phone, Microsoft is working with where the ecosystem is today.

The key reason is that Microsoft explicitly says that apps will only open on one screen by default and in fact, apps will not be allowed to open up on both screens — that can only happen if a user drags a window into that state.

Your app by default will occupy a single screen, but users can span the app to cover both screens when the device is in a double-portrait or double-landscape layout. You can programmatically enable full-screen mode for your app at any time, but spanning is limited to user activity for now.

It has the very practical benefit of working better with existing Android apps by default. Instead of being annoyed that many apps are kind of junky and poorly-designed in a tablet screen context, the entry experience will just be two normal Android apps, side by side. Android apps generally look alright on portrait, phone-style screens — and that’s the way they’ll launch on the Duo.

So even in the worst case scenario where only Microsoft’s own apps are aware of the hinge, the Duo will still work. It’s like the theory of progressive enhancement (and graceful degradation) in web design, but applied to dual-screen Android apps. It’s smart because, frankly, the worst-case scenario also happens to be the most likely scenario at launch.

Only allowing users to choose when to make apps span two screens adds a level of predictability that will be important for users to built up their intuitions for how things work on the dual-screen device. (Side note: I have a whole rant about how there’s no such thing as “intuitive” design in software, it’s all learned.)

Assuming it all works, users won’t be forced to learn a whole series of gestures and layouts and grids and whatever. Instead, they’ll just be able to move stuff around and let the software do the right thing.

It is, pardon the alliteration, programmatically pragmatic.

None of this guarantees that the Duo will be any good or that my relative optimism will be rewarded. I’m just glad that Microsoft isn’t setting the whole situation up for immediate failure from the jump. There’s simply very little chance that a ton of Android apps will be customized for the Duo’s dual screens for launch, but that hopefully won’t matter.

Speaking of things that aren’t guaranteed: Windows 10X. The developer tools for that OS are still forthcoming and the questions about how it will operate are much more numerous than for the Duo. Given how many PC manufacturers are waiting for that OS for their foldables, the stakes for Windows 10X are much higher.

As Tom Warren noted yesterday, we should expect to see more at Microsoft’s Build developers’ conference in May. If there were ever a time for Microsoft to be a little less hand-wavy about 10X, that will be it.


More from The Verge

Microsoft to force Chrome default search to Bing using Office 365 installer

In case you were feeling really good about the new Microsoft working across platforms, here is a reminder that it still sometimes does crappy things.

Senator asks Jeff Bezos for more information on Saudi-linked hack

Reading the bullet points in Wyden’s letter really drives home how every successively revealed detail in this story is more eye-popping and mysterious than the last.

Alleged Xbox Series X photos show off the port selection

No HDMI-in, yet another sign that Microsoft isn’t trying to make the Xbox the central hub of your living room. It’s the right call. This feels vaguely related to the idea of a hub but I’ll leave it to you to connect the dots: the more I look at this big box the more it feels like one of those old HP MediaSmart home servers.

Motorola’s foldable Razr will launch on February 6th after delay

It’s still $1499 and it’s coming out just days before Samsung is expected to announce its own flip phone. But when people think flip phone, they think Razr, so Motorola still has a good chance even though it’s up against a bigger company. A real question in my mind is how big this launch will actually be. Will Verizon, because it has an exclusive, try to make this a huge deal with tons of marketing?

During the announcement, Motorola acted supremely confident in the Razr’s reliability and battery life. How much oomph gets put into the retail launch will say a lot about how real that confidence was.

Google publishes largest ever high-resolution map of brain connectivity

Google designed an envelope you can use to hide your phone from yourself

Amazon Music passes 55 million customers as it chips away at Spotify and Apple Music

Great interview by Loren Grush: NASA administrator on the year ahead: ‘A lot of things have to go right’

Rapid global response to the new coronavirus shows progress made since SARS

Nicole Wetsman:

By comparison, the SARS virus emerged in November 2002, but it took until April 2003 for scientists to get a full genetic sequence. It took several months of disease spreading in Western Africa in 2013 before authorities determined it was caused by Ebola. It took around a year to identify Zika as the cause of illnesses in Brazil in 2014 and 2015.

How an experimental story about gender and warfare shook the sci-fi community

Incredible story about how we perceive each other online, how platforms like Google affect that, how the platforms themselves can be affected by our actions, identity online and off… I could go on. Even if you aren’t interested in the specific things I just mentioned, I bet that the way this piece tells the story of their collisions and interactions will suck you in.

Can Apple live up to Apple’s privacy ads?

The thing that convulsed the internet for much of yesterday was this Reuters report that Apple decided against throwing away its keys to users’ encrypted iCloud backups after the FBI complained about encryption.

The word “after” does a lot of work in that formulation — it reads as though it’s meant to be about cause but might just simply be about chronology. Reuters itself didn’t come out and say that Apple chose to retain the ability to unlock your iCloud backups because it was worried about the FBI freaking out if it locked them down, but didn’t not not say that either. One source told the outlet that “Apple didn’t want to poke the bear,” the bear being the FBI.

The news isn’t that the iCloud loophole exists — we’ve always known that. If Reuters’ reporting is correct (and I have no reason to doubt it), the news is Apple’s rare about-face on its march to protect your data.

It’s caused a stir because the larger context is that the US Attorney General is accusing Apple of refusing to help with FBI investigations, a claim Apple strenuously denies. But inside that denial is also the awkward fact that Apple has access to that data in the first place via the iCloud loophole.

Apple set itself up as the paragon of privacy over the past year. I’d argue that Apple’s own rhetoric around privacy and security meant that anything less than perfectly private and secure data would be seen as a failure. And friends: there is no such thing as perfectly private and secure data.

To be clear, Apple really is doing a lot to try to limit the collection and spread of your data — that’s one of the core issues in the big Browser War I wrote about last week. It also has been way out ahead of the rest of big tech when it comes to on-device encryption. Other big tech companies should be doing more to follow Apple’s example when it comes to device encryption and tracking. Credit where due.

Speaking of credit where due — and I’m embarrassed to say I forgot about this until John Gruber mentioned it — Google offers full backup encryption that it can’t access on its servers for newer Android phones. (If only it would offer a more secure default messaging experience!)

Anyway, this whole story was all anybody in tech was talking about yesterday (until the Bezos phone hack story hit. Like I said, there’s a lot going on!). My favorite tweet on the whole fight comes from Joe Cieplinski, who puts the whole debate into exactly the right context:

I love that now the non-tech world thinks Apple is aiding terrorists, and the tech world is simultaneously thinking Apple is selling us out to the FBI. … Gotta love the complete absence of reason in our discourse these days.

I don’t know if there is a complete absence of reason, but the truth is that data privacy and encryption is Really Actually Quite Complicated. As much a we’d like it to be a simple binary choice between secure and not, the truth is that security is a spectrum. You make a trade-off every time you choose a password you have a ghost of a chance of remembering. Apple makes a trade-off when it chooses to keep the decryption key for iCloud backups.

The last time Tim Cook spoke directly to this issue that I’m aware of, he said Apple kept the keys for users who forget their passwords. That’s a legitimate use case, and whether you believe that to be the main reason or not is between you and your general level of trust in Apple and in big tech generally.

This debate has been a long time coming, by the way. It was already one of those things that tech people sort of knew but didn’t think much about when Walt Mossberg wrote about the “iCloud loophole” in 2016 in his column on The Verge. It was a vaguely troubling thing back in 2016. Now in 2020, it’s a much bigger story because Apple itself made it the story of the iPhone all of last year.

When you put up a giant billboard at the biggest consumer electronics show in America touting that “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone,” as Apple did at CES in 2019, people tend to want to see you live up to it. When you follow it up with a “Privacy matters” ad in May, people expect you to live up to it. The heat on this topic is high in large part because Apple’s own rhetoric has been so vociferous.

This might sound like I’m railing against Apple for hypocrisy. I am not — yet. As I mentioned, data security is a spectrum and it’s difficult to understand how everything works in the first place. If I’m unhappy with Apple for anything, it’s for talking about data security and privacy in such absolutist terms.

And I get the impetus! Putting up a billboard that reads “Every security and privacy decision involves trade-offs and we are making the best choices we can in that regard without locking your phone down so much you can barely use it” isn’t going to sell a lot of phones. That’s not how marketing works.

What’s next? I expect a lot of hunkering down from Apple (it hasn’t responded to our request for comment, for example). I don’t know how long it can simply stay silent, however. The FBI and the Attorney General are definitely going to keep pushing. I doubt Apple’s big tech competitors will make hay about it in the way Apple itself has, but that doesn’t mean Apple’s users won’t demand better.

Apple’s choices for iCloud backups involve trade-offs that reasonable people can argue about. I don’t know that I agree with them (in fact I don’t think I do), but it would be nice to have an open, nuanced discussion about them. The problem is that, as Cieplinski tweeted, nuance and reason are in pretty short supply when it comes to discussions about encryption.


More stories from The Verge

Exclusive look at Cruise’s first driverless car without a steering wheel or pedals

Andrew Hawkins with the inside (pardon the pun) look at GM’s entry into the self-driving car discussion. Don’t miss the video, especially.

Inside are two bench seats facing each other, a pair of screens on either end… and nothing else. The absence of all the stuff you expect to see when climbing into a vehicle is jarring. No steering wheel, no pedals, no gear shift, no cockpit to speak of, no obvious way for a human to take control should anything go wrong. There’s a new car smell, but it’s not unpleasant. It’s almost like cucumber-infused water.

Microsoft’s CEO looks to a future beyond Windows, iOS, and Android

Tom Warren has a great write up of what a bunch of reporters learned about Microsoft’s strategy at a small summit in New York last week. This quote from CEO Satya Nadella is really something:

”Windows with its billion is good, Android with its 2 billion is good, iOS with its billion is good — but there is 46 billion more. So let’s go and look at what that 46 billion plus 4 [billion] looks like, and define a strategy for that, and then have everything have a place under the sun.”

Saudi Arabian prince reportedly hacked Jeff Bezos’ phone with malicious WhatsApp message

Google favors temporary facial recognition ban as Microsoft pushes back

James Vincent on the recent back and forth about facial recognition. Here’s an idea: what if we set tech policy by a democratic system involving our duly elected representative instead of whatever these corporations think is best for their image. Weird, I know.

So far, the market is indeed dictating the rules, with big tech companies taking different stances on the issue. Microsoft sells facial recognition but has self-imposed limits, for example, like letting police use the technology in jails but not on the street, and not selling to immigration services. Amazon has eagerly pursued police partnerships, particularly though its video Ring doorbells, which critics say gives law enforcement access to a massive crowdsourced surveillance network.

SpaceX successfully tests escape system on new spacecraft — while destroying a rocket

Loren Grush has all the details, including this bit from Elon Musk, who knows how to give a good quote:

But Musk said the Crew Dragon could have survived if it had been right on top of the fireball. “Since the spacecraft has a very powerful base heat shield, it should not really be significantly affected by the fireball,” Musk said. “It could quite literally look like something out of Star Wars, where it flies right out of the fireball.” Musk also noted that the Crew Dragon could do an escape like at any point during the climb to space, right up until it’s deployed into orbit.

Meet the 26-year-old socialist trucker running for Congress on TikTok

Great profile from Makena Kelly! Mostly, though, I’m going to be laughing for days over the phrase “yeet the rich.”

Sonos and Tile execs warn Congress that Amazon, Google, and Apple are killing competition

Adi Robertson’s story on one of the most engaging hearings I’ve seen in quite some time. I know it’s nothing like impeachment or having big tech CEOs testify, but if you care at all about the consumer tech ecosystem, you should pay attention. At the very least I recommend watching some of the surprisingly forthright opening statements from all of these companies — each of them could be snuffed out in an instant by Amazon or Google or Apple and those giant companies might not even notice they did it. The testimony starts at around the 45 minute mark here.

Things that are not modular and things that are

Sonos will stop providing software updates for its oldest products in May

Speaking of Sonos, this is a tough but probably necessary call. The fact that its system won’t update beyond what the oldest speaker in your network can handle is a bummer. Maybe in the future that won’t be a limitation. I cracked a joke on Twitter about how this is an example of why the lack of modular gadgetry is short-sighted. But it’s not really a joke. All the attempts to do it on phones have basically flopped — some so much so (Ara!) that it has poisoned consumers on the whole idea, which is a shame.

Riding 27 mph downhill on a Dot electric skateboard

Super fun video with with Becca Farsace. This board seems genuinely cool and modular (at least something can be in 2020!). Mixing and matching parts to get the thing to meet your needs is great. …The fact that it can’t brake when the battery is full is not so great.

Skip pulls back the curtain on the high costs of electric scooter maintenance

Modularity! Turns out re-purposing a bunch of scooters original designed for light, personal use into heavy-duty rideshare vehicles was a bad idea. Good on Skip for the transparency here, and hopefully we’ll see these things get more durable over time.

“It’s still early, and we can’t yet extrapolate the long term impact of 4,786 spare parts per 1M trips. Some parts will require replacement due to wear and tear as the fleet ages,” the company says. “But thus far, all parts failures have been caused by vandalism or as the result of premature material failures.”

The browser wars are back, but it’s different this time

If you weren’t convinced we live in a new era for Microsoft’s consumer-facing software, the one-two punch of Windows 7 closing down and the new Chromium-based version of Edge officially launching ought to do it for you. Microsoft’s new Edge Chromium browser is out now for both Windows and macOS.

We’ll be taking a closer, more critical look at the Edge browser now that it’s no longer in beta over the coming days. Tom Warren has just as many thoughts about the future of Windows as I do about the implications of the switch over to the Chromium codebase, which is mostly maintained by Google.

We’ll be getting into all of it, but I want to start with some very high-level things to know about browsers right now — because after many years of stasis, things are really about to change.

Just today, alongside the Edge launch we also got the very sad news that Mozilla had to lay off about 70 people, TechCrunch reports. In a public memo, interim CEO Mitchell Baker wrote that “to responsibly make additional investments in innovation to improve the internet, we can and must work within the limits of our core finances.”

The Mozilla and Microsoft news isn’t directly connected, but it is indirectly connected in a thousand ways. Both companies have in some sense spent the past few years contending with Google.

For Microsoft, it was the realization that its project to create its own web rendering engine was an uphill climb that wasn’t worth the investment. Too many websites rendered oddly in Edge, often because they were coded specifically for Chrome or Safari’s Webkit instead of following more generic standards. The deep irony is that long ago, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer nearly broke the web because it demanded custom code from web developers.

So Microsoft made the tough call: it bailed and switched to the same technology that runs Chrome. But there are key differences: Microsoft has taken a different stance on web tracking than Google and it has also, obviously, plugged Edge into Microsoft’s services.

For me, the key thing to watch will be whether or not this new Chromium-based Edge feels tacked-on to Windows. On a very personal note, the fact that some Microsoft email clients still revert to Word’s HTML rendering engine is a huge thorn in my side. But there are a million ways that HTML rendering affects and OS, and I’ll be waiting to see how Chromium affects Windows and vice verse. One of the old Edge’s best features was how kind it was to battery life.

There’s also the question of Microsoft’s app framework future — how much of it will be Electron, how much will be Progressive Web Apps, and how much will be actual Windows apps. All open questions, and all questions I’m likely to defer to Tom Warren on. As with everything else, something to watch.

For Mozilla, it was switching back to Google Search as the default in Firefox and leading the charge to a more privacy-focused model. Firefox’s decisions around blocking trackers inspired Apple to be even more aggressive in doing the same last year. This week even Google was forced to throw in the towel and commit to eventually disabling third-party cookie.

As I noted in my article on Tuesday about Chrome’s decision, there are many, many (many!) forces at play in the coming browser wars. At a high level, if I had to explain what’s happening without worrying too much about the details, here’s how I’d put it in one incredibly overwrought sentence:

The mobile web is broken and unfettered tracking and data sharing have made visiting websites feel toxic, but since the ecosystem of websites and ad companies can’t fix it through collective action, it falls on browser makers to use technological innovations to limit that surveillance, however each company that makes a browser is taking a different approach to creating those innovations, and everybody distrusts everybody else to act in the best interest of the web instead of the best interest of their employers’ profits.

Here’s a shorter sentence: the next browser war is here and it’s a goat rodeo.

I’ve been avoiding getting into the precise details of the proposals out there to fix the tracking problem because things are changing so quickly across so many different tracks. I am sure that sometime soon I will break and tuck into Google’s Privacy Sandbox and Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention and Mozilla’s defaults that deserve credit for kicking a lot of this off. Until then, know that there are two important things to know.

First: there are new browser technologies and limits coming that could radically change how ads work and could make it easier for you to protect your privacy no matter what browser you use. Since this is the web, it’ll take time, but everybody seems committed.

Second: the way many of us think about a Browser War is in terms of marketshare — and that is the wrong metric this time. There is a browser war, but it won’t be won or lost based on who can convince the most people to switch to their browser. Because most people can’t or won’t switch on the platform that matters: mobile.

In 2020, the desktop is a minor skirmish compared to browsers on phones.

On phones, many people aren’t really free to choose their browser. That’s literally true on the iPhone, which Apple locks down so apps can only use its web rendering technology. And it’s for-intents-and-purposes true on Android, where the vast majority of browsers just use Chromium. Yes, there is an Android browser ballot happening in Europe, but it’s much too early to know what its effects will be.

That brings me back to the new Edge. Microsoft has committed itself to Android so fully that it is currently working on making its own Android-based Surface phone, due out later this year. And so if you’re Microsoft, it makes perfect sense to want to get your own first-party browser that’s fully kitted up with your services on that phone.

The easiest, best way to do that on Android is to just use Chromium. And if you want your company to be good at Chromium on mobile, it doesn’t hurt to ensure it’s also good at Chromium on Windows.

The fact that I’ve looped all the way back to Microsoft needing to provide services on mobile isn’t (just) my usual rhetorical meandering, it’s the whole point. The new Browser Wars aren’t about who makes the fastest or best browser, they’re about whose services you want and whose data policies you trust.

Anyway, here’s how to download Microsoft’s new Edge browser. You should do it. And install Firefox. And maybe Brave and Vivaldi and whatever else. A return to real browser competition on the desktop means we might have our best chance in years to fix up the web again — and it might just create some momentum that could make the mobile web better too.


More from The Verge

Bose is closing all of its retail stores in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia

Google now treats iPhones as physical security keys

I have been enrolled in Google’s Advanced Protection Program for a few months now and by-and-large it’s not been a problem. But it is often a hassle. I can’t seem to get my personal Gmail info working on Windows’ default apps and often on phones where I use Login with Google things to haywire.

Anyway, this is a good step forward and hopefully builds up demand for more standardized support for FIDO security keys. But my Very Strongly Stated Advice if you sign up is to spend some time making sure the logins you absolutely need still work and — most of all — buy some backup security keys and keep them in a safe place. Because if you get locked out from losing a two-factor key, friend you are Locked The Eff Out.

Twitter’s Jack Dorsey on edit button: ‘We’ll probably never do it’

So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

Reviews

Jabra Elite 75t earbuds review: the best AirPods alternative

Great review from Chris Welch. These earbuds look so much more elegant than AirPods. The main downsides are a lack of wireless charging and active noise cancellation. The upside is USB-C charging and working with two paired devices at once. And price! And battery life!

I haven’t listened to them myself but my gut tells me that unless you really want active noice cancellation, these will be my default recommendation.

This global power adapter makes traveling with USB-C devices less of a pain

Cameron Faulkner reviews a very simple thing that significantly improves your quality of life when you travel internationally.

Some fun

Spotify will now make a playlist for your cat

This daily word guessing game is the perfect way to kill time — and confidence

Welp this is habit forming.

This Jigglypuff Bluetooth speaker could be a sleeper hit

Just trust me: click through and see the eldrich horror that is a plastic Jigglypuff in a brightly list FCC testing facility. Ominous. Looming. Scary.

Windows 7 is gone, but what’s next for Windows 10?

Yesterday’s computer news was about something old: Windows 7. After 11 years, Microsoft is officially ending support for it — though as Tom Warren notes, there’s a healthy chance the company will blink and provide some kind of security update at some point for something critical.

Windows has a reputation for shipping a good version, then a bad version. Windows 7 was one of the good versions, and upgrades to Windows 10 are free for consumers. That means you can skip right over Windows 8, and more power to you.

Now, the future for Windows is harder to divine. Microsoft won’t be releasing a “Windows 11,” but instead updating Windows 10 on whatever cadence it can decide on from year to year. Early on it seemed like it wanted to be a lot like Chrome OS in issuing updates on a regular and frequent cadence, but lately things are moving a little slower as some bugs have crept in. There’s also Windows 10X coming later this year, the version of Windows 10 designed for foldable devices.

When I interviewed Microsoft’s CEO back in May 2018 (time flies!!), it was clear to me that Microsoft wants to make sure its fortunes don’t depend on Windows — and Nadella has achieved that goal already. Microsoft is as focused on making sure its software runs well on other platforms as it is on maintaining the platform that made the company — maybe more so.

I think the action for the next while is going to be centered around the new Edge browser — based on Chromium — and what Microsoft can do with it. I’m confident the Edge browser itself will run fairly well and hopeful it’ll be less of a battery killer than Chrome. For me, the thing to watch is whether Microsoft can use that technology elsewhere in Windows and Office or if Edge will just feel tacked-on.

Goodbye, Windows 7

Microsoft bids farewell to Windows 7 and the millions of PCs that still run it

Thank you to Windows 7 for undoing some of Vista’s excesses. Thank you also to Windows 7 for being good enough to allow millions of people to skip Windows 8 because of its excesses. You have been stalwart and true, but now is the time for you to rest. May your registry always be clean and your start menu uncluttered.

I salute you, oh Windows 7, with the salute emoticon, which happily includes the number seven: o7

How to upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 10 for free

The PC market just had its first year of growth since 2011

With Microsoft ending support for Windows 7 today, businesses around the world are being forced to upgrade their legacy devices, leading to “vibrant business demand” for Windows 10, according to Gartner.

Microsoft patches Windows 10 security flaw discovered by the NSA

It’s unusual to see the NSA reporting these types of vulnerabilities directly to Microsoft, but it’s not the first time the government agency has done so. This is the first time the NSA has accepted attribution from Microsoft for a vulnerability report, though

More news from The Verge

Trump accuses Apple of refusing to unlock criminals’ iPhones, setting the stage for a fight

Latest Galaxy S20 Plus leak shows off 120Hz display and no headphone jack

Max Weinbach is back with more details and specs. Looks like 120Hz screens is going to be baseline for Android flagships this year. I’m also intrigued by the taller/longer shape. I really did like it on the Sony Xperia phones last year.

By the way — the consensus is that “Bloom” was the codename for Samsung’s folding phone and the actual product name is going to be “Galaxy Z Flip.” I think my concerns about addressing gender could still stand, though, depending on how Samsung positions the phone. I will say that the only thing that endears me to the phrase “Galaxy Z Flip” is that is has the last three letters of the English alphabet all a row.

Yahoo parent Verizon promises it won’t track you with OneSearch, its new privacy-focused search engine

From the company that brought you the Super Cookie, a …privacy-focused search engine? Fool me once but I guess we could take Verizon at its word here, because it would be quite a scandal if it turned out otherwise. Maybe.

Let’s just call this a trust-but-verify kind of situation — if we’ve learned anything about tracking over the past decade, its that people find ways to do it that you never would have imagined.

Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time is the GOAT of low-stakes television

One sign of admiration that you can see in this article and everywhere else is that we write it “Jeopardy!,” exclamation point included and do so without the usual millennial irony. (Or is it Gen X irony?). If you want to teach somebody how to be stoic, kind, funny, and empathetic all at once, you could do a lot worse than sit them down have them watch Alex Trebek host this show.

Time zones mess up more than just your sense of time

You might think you know what you’re getting into with this video by Cory Zapatka and Verge Science, but it takes a fascinating and vital turn halfway through. For some, setting their watch is a political act.

Coral is Google’s quiet initiative to enable AI without the cloud

Little, easily programmable AI chips are going to be an essential part of our computing infrastructure — it can’t all go to the cloud. James Vincent looks into Google’s offering in that regard, Coral. It’s a little too tightly tied to Google’s own AI ecosystem for many, though.

Anyway, if you’ve heard Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talk about “the intelligent edge” any time in the past year and wondered what he’s on about, this story is a good primer on what these devices are, why they’re needed, and what their potential might be — whether they’re made by Google or not.

Instagram starts bringing DMs to the web

Good get from Ashley Carman. Access on the desktop may not be the main way mobile chat apps are used these days, but it’s essential for people who have office jobs. If you’re staring at a certain screen all day and your fingers are on a certain keyboard, you’re more likely to use the chat app that can appear on that screen and work with that keyboard.

Google to ‘phase out’ third-party cookies in Chrome, but not for two years

Here’s me, touching briefly on what’s going on with the browser war. It really does inflame a lot of passions and I really do think every side here is not giving the other side the benefit of the doubt. And that those sides would probably say ‘you darn tootin’ we’re not giving those varmints the benefit of the doubt!’ That’s how web developers talk, you see. There are very good reasons for everybody to distrust everybody else in this whole privacy mess.

Here comes the cliche, though: good, so long as all that contention leads to a more resilient and long-lasting solution. We need to have this conversation and the web and the browsers we use to access it need to develop more quickly. Too many things are broken right now.

SpaceX continues to blast satellites into orbit as the space community worries

Elon Musk’s plan to put 42,000(!) internet-providing satellites into space raises a lot of legitimate issues, especially when it comes to tracking satellites and preventing collisions. Loren Grush has a deep, nuanced look at the current state of things for both that and astronomy. Worth your time:

The truth about Starlink is that there is no solid truth. Depending on who you ask, the constellation either won’t be that much of a problem, or it will lead to a space apocalypse

OnePlus CEO Pete Lau doesn’t think folding phones are good enough

This was a fun podcast — Lau’s first, he says.

Google to ‘phase out’ third-party cookies in Chrome, but not for two years

Google will join Safari and Firefox in blocking third-party cookies in its Chrome web browser. However, unlike those browsers (which have already started blocking them by default), Google intends to take a phased approach. Justin Schuh, the director at engineering for Chrome, writes that Google’s “intention is to do this within two years.”

In those cookies’ place, Google is hoping that it can institute a new set of technical solutions for various things that cookies are currently used for. To that end, it has proposed a bunch of new technologies (as have other browser makers) that may be less invasive and annoying than tracking cookies have become.

These new technologies are supposed to make it easier for advertisers to target certain demographics without laser-sighting down to specific people, ensure that the infrastructure many sites use for logins don’t break, and help provide some level of anonymous tracking so advertisers can know if their ads actually converted into sales.

If it all came to pass, it would radically shift the way ad tracking and privacy work on the web. It could also open up entirely new vectors of tracking we have yet to imagine.

The context for Google’s cookie-killing proposal is that there’s a pitched battle being waged between browser makers to remake the future of privacy on the web. On the one hand are browsers like Safari and Firefox, browsers with code that increasingly take an absolutist stance against cross-site tracking. On the other is Google and Chrome, whose developers are trying to cut down on tracking without kneecapping revenue for websites.

The difference between them all isn’t just whether and how to implement that tech, but when. Google wants to wait a bit, Apple and Firefox believe the crisis is already too big and have already started blocking third-party cookies — perhaps before there’s a viable replacement for some use cases (and in some cases, they may not want there to be one).

The battle is big and the rhetoric is getting sharp. People accuse Apple of wanting to smother the web in favor of a walled-garden App Store. Others accuse Google of wanting to maintain an ad-tracking dystopia. Google worries that cutting off cookies now will encourage bad actors to switch to harder-to-stop fingerprinting methods, but then everybody notices that it’s awfully convenient that Google doesn’t want to stop ad tracking until later.

But because these are web people, the fights are happening in places you’re probably not really watching: email lists, github, and W3C panels and working groups. Compared to other tech fights, it probably looks relatively tame and — like all standards bodies — moves quite slowly. But the stakes are sky high: a huge proportion of the ads you see on the web are driven by third-party cookies and part of an infrastructure that tracks and trades on your data and even your identity.

The specifics of the proposals get very complicated very quickly, unfortunately, and make explaining third-party cookies seem elementary by comparison. At a high level, Google wants to create a “privacy sandbox,” where websites are able to gather some information but ultimately hit a wall where the browser cuts them off. Apple has proposed an API for helping retail websites track conversions that Google seems to like, but the two companies don’t agree on how much information should be allowed. There are proposals for grouping people into large demographic “flocks” and replacement mechanisms for logging in with third-party services.

These ideas and more are getting hashed out — and hopefully they will be, because failing to do so will mean a further fracturing of how different people experience the web. There’s unlikely to be anything like 100 percent agreement, but the hope is that we’ll get some kind of consensus on what should replace third-party cookies.

Those cookies were never really meant to do as much work — or contain and share as much information — as they currently do. The list of things that third-party cookies do is very long and finding agreement on how (or whether!) to replace them is going to take a long time.

With the Galaxy S20 and Bloom, Samsung is shaking up its phone names again

Now that CES is over, we turn our attention to the next big tech unveiling — no rest for the wicked! Samsung announced its February 11th “Unpacked” event ahead of CES and is widely expected to have two phones: an update to the Galaxy S10 and a new, clamshell-style folding phone.

Because nothing can ever be simple, Samsung has decided to change the naming scheme for the Galaxy S series away from sequential, incremental numbering to the year of release. Or at least, I hope that the fact it’s getting released in 2020 is the reason Samsung appears to be calling its next phone the Galaxy S20 instead of the S11. I hope that mostly because I don’t know if I can handle having to listen and react to any other rationalization.

I’m not mad in the change, just disappointed. We already have arms races for specs on phones, the last thing I want is another one for how big the numbers in their names are.

Anyway, right on schedule we have real-world photos which confirm Samsung’s next flagship phone is called the Galaxy S20, if you were holding out hope that this S20 rumor wouldn’t pan out.

It’s a good scoop from Max Weinbach at XDA Developers. It looks as though there’ll be no fewer than five variants of this phone, but don’t slam Samsung too hard for that. As OnePlus CEO Pete Lau pointed out to me last week, every phone maker is having to make extra versions of their phones during the 5G transition. So really, think of it as three version: the S20, S20 Plus, and S20 Ultra.

That “Ultra” is apparently going to be a spec monster, and I hope Samsung uses it as permission to push the prices on the regular S20 down into more reasonable territories. The iPhone 11 starts at $699 and ideally the Galaxy S20 will too. Samsung has a little wiggle room, maybe, as it’s more willing than Apple to allow a wide variety of carrier discounts.

If you missed it on Friday, there’s also a blurry photo of the folding phone, which is reportedly going to be called the Samsung Bloom. I am into the rumored name, but I am feeling both optimistic and nervous about the positioning:

What’s new is the name and marketing for the Bloom. Ajunews says Samsung wants the device to appeal to young women, and says its clamshell design is easy to hold in one hand. Samsung Electronics CEO DJ Koh reportedly told one partner: “We designed Galaxy Bloom with the motif of compact powder from French cosmetics brand Lancôme.”

If Samsung is being sincere here, then I really love that advanced tech is being made with women in mind. Big companies should think harder about how to appeal to more consumers. The reason I’m feeling nervous is that Samsung itself has a lousy track record when it comes to navigating gender issues. As recently as 2017, Samsung gendered the possible voices for its Bixby assistant and created descriptor tags for the female voice that included “chipper” and “cheerful.”

Back in the early 2010s a lot of companies made hamfisted attempts to create phones that appealed to women (HTC Rhyme, anyone?) and we should expect better in 2020. If Samsung really does want to appeal to a wider range of genders with the Bloom, hopefully it does more than make it small and gesture to cosmetics. The shoe industry is finally figuring out how to design for women — the phone industry can definitely do better.

I hope Samsung has learned from all those past mistakes.


News from The Verge

Trump’s attorney general asks Apple to unlock a shooter’s iPhones

Microsoft CEO says encryption backdoors are a ‘terrible idea’

Alphabet’s top lawyer is leaving with no exit package following misconduct scandals

Microsoft says Xbox Series X won’t have exclusive first-party games at launch

It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for ‘em.

Elon Musk: ‘Teslas will soon talk to people if you want. This is real’

I don’t know why the “This is real” addition is what makes this story, but it’s absolutely what makes this story. I’m going to start appending that phrase to everything I say that’s even a little bit difficult to imagine. “I will try to make a frittata this weekend. This is real.” “Tomorrow I am going to reduce the number of emails in by inbox by 20 percent. This is real.” “I think stepping on a bathmat with wet feet is a wildly inconsiderate thing to do to your roommates. This is real.”

GTA IV has disappeared from Steam because of Games for Windows Live

Is it a stretch to turn this weird story into an allegory for how dangerous it is to depend entirely on app store infrastructure for app and game functionality, no matter how convenient it is for users to not have to deal with multiple sign-in and no matter how big the check from the big platforms might be? Probably, but not definitely.

Apple gets regulatory approval for mystery MacBook

I hope Apple aggressively refreshes the entire MacBook line with the new magic keyboard this year, optics and standard product cycles be damned. The real magic in the magic keyboard will be the extra money that will magically appear on Apple’s quarterly earnings from people begrudgingly buying new laptops earlier than they otherwise would have because they’re sick unto death of the butterfly keyboard.


More tech trends we saw kick off last week

The Verge Awards at CES 2020: welcome to the land of the concept

Note that we put scare quotes about “best” in the “‘Best’ of CES.” I’ve been writing about the balance of concepts to products for a week now, so I don’t have a whole lot more to add here. Some good picks in the other categories, though, worth a look!

Laptops were boring at CES, but there’s hope for the future

CES landed in a particular dip in the parts cycle this time around. There are exciting new chips and exciting new form factors coming, but neither was really ready to come out in force this January. Don’t let it get you down.

This year’s monitors will be faster, brighter, and curvier than ever

I agree with Sam Byford on this:

If I were buying a gaming monitor today, I would probably at least want to future-proof myself with HDR support, and I think that would probably mean considering a high DisplayHDR spec to be essential. As for Mini LED, it’s hard to say how much of a leap forward it represents — the effectiveness of LED dimming solutions can vary from model to model or panel to panel. But if nothing else, it should signal that you’re looking at a monitor with serious HDR support

How gaming PCs are competing with the PS5 and Xbox Series X

Good analysis from Nick Statt. Expect to see PCs and consoles wander into each others’ turf a lot this year.

Wi-Fi 6 is finally here

Wi-Fi 6 was never meant to be a technology so powerful as to be worth upgrading for. It comes with speed increases, up to 9.6 Gbps from a theoretical maximum of 3.5 Gbps on Wi-Fi 5. But that extra bandwidth is more about allowing routers to scale across the multitude of devices in your home, rather than deliver incredible bursts of speed to any one device (your internet speed is likely nowhere close to that maximum anyway).

OnePlus confirms its next phone will jump to a 120Hz screen

I touched on this briefly in the post, but I am a little conflicted about this for a couple reasons.

First: while I do prefer higher-refresh rate screens, I am not yet convinced they’re worth the trade-off for battery life just yet. Which makes this a frustrating thing to turn into a spec race, because the incentive will be to ship phones with a higher Hz number instead of phones that are well-balanced. I’m not saying OnePlus is doing that, but I am saying I worry the incentives for everybody in the industry are going to be skewed in a bad direction this year.

Second: This isn’t new, but OnePlus joins LG and Google in pre-announcing features ahead of announcing the phone itself. That’s all well and good, but if too many more companies jump on that bandwagon it’s going to get really exhausting.

Asus built a mini GPU specifically for Intel’s tiny gaming box

Another potential sign that this new form factor Intel is pushing might actually have legs. I can’t decide yet if hope it does, but at least a small part of me wants it to succeed. Mainly because I am sure a bunch of people are going to buy into the vision this year and I’d hate for them to be left in the lurch next year and the year after.

OnePlus confirms its next phone will jump to a 120Hz screen

Speaking to us last week at CES, OnePlus CEO Pete Lau confirmed that the company’s next major phones — presumably the OnePlus 8 — will feature screens with a refresh rate of 120Hz. Lau is not one for subtlety, and claimed in a note to us sent later that it would be “the best smartphone display in 2020.” Having not seen it, we obviously can’t say if that claim is more than just bombast.

OnePlus says that it worked with Samsung to develop the OLED screen, and that in addition it has done work on top of Android to improve animations (especially the core OS gestures) so they’ll look smoother at 120Hz.

OnePlus also intends to use a custom MEMC (motion estimation / motion compensation) chip to insert extra frames into videos to bring them up to 120Hz. It wouldn’t be completely inaccurate to call it motion smoothing for video on smartphones, though again we’d have to see whether it causes a “soap opera effect” in person before we called that a bad idea. MEMC will be able to be toggled on and off in settings.

The image at the top of the post, sent to us by OnePlus, doesn’t convey a ton of information but does indicate where the MEMC hardware chip would sit. It also, astute viewers will note, appears to show a pop-up camera mechanism.

Lastly, OnePlus claims its screen can hit 1000 nits peak brightness for HDR content, has a touch sampling rate of 240Hz, and supports 10-bit color. Add it all up and you have what is clearly the next front in the Android phone chest thumping battle: screen specs.

The OnePlus 8 (or whatever it will be called) won’t be the first phone to hit 120Hz. the ROG Phone 2 and Razer Phone 2 both did that last year. Nor will it be the only Android phone that has a higher-than-60Hz refresh rate to come out this year. Samsung’s Galaxy S series, for example, is expected to feature 120Hz refresh rates when announced on February 11th. The challenges facing all of those phones will include compensating for the higher battery cost of a high-refresh rate screen and convincing customers the extra cost it worth the improved smoothness.

Users should be able to switch between 60Hz and 120Hz, but it may not be a variable refresh rate as Google has tried (somewhat unsuccessfully) to do on the Pixel 4’s 90Hz screen. And while it may reduce the refresh rate in some cases when it’s not needed, it won’t be able match the refresh rate of, say, 24FPS video.

Lau believes that last part won’t be hard. “It’s something you can definitely tell” in the same way you could see 90Hz, he says, calling it a “further level” of smoothness, especially with scrolling and gestures. Lau also argues that the company has been focused on optimizing for power consumption. It’s already an issue with 90Hz screens, so it’s going to be even more of a concern with 120Hz.

OnePlus has promised to hold an event in Shenzhen, China today to show off more of this new screen technology. It seems as if companies announcing features of their phones before they announce their phones is just going to be the new normal now.

Eight big takeaways from CES 2020

CES is over, and I am quite sure you’ll be happy to be done with it. We still have more to come today and perhaps a little next week. We’ll have our Verge Awards piece, naming most important, best, and most hilarious things of the show. We’ll have a few category-specific roundups of what to watch out for this year and some pieces digging deeper into the trends that CES has kicked off.

In the hopes of having something we can look back on later this year when asked what the hell even happened at CES, I’m going to list some of my big takeaways. I’ll leave specific products to the Awards list, instead I want to try to do just a little synthesis.

If there’s one major takeaway, it’s this: in the absence of one clear Next Big Thing, there are a lot of ideas getting thrown at the wall. Many of them are intriguing, but overall it seems like we’re waiting for some parts of the consumer electronics ecosystem to mature. That trend expresses itself differently in different types of product categories, but it was pretty consistent across all of them.

Thanks for experiencing this week with us!


1. TV makers keep looking for the next expensive thing

Image: Samsung

You probably already know the drill: every year at CES TV companies do their best to come up with the next big thing that makes people upgrade. This year it’s a reminder that rolling TVs are coming and so is 8K and so are radical new designs that are bezel-less or ultra-thin.

You can get a killer 4K HDR TV for under $300, depending on what size you want. Right now I see a big gap between that and what’s next. Samsung and LG will sell you something very expensive if they can, but broad adoption of the Next Big TV Tech isn’t going to happen this year in part because we don’t really know what that is yet.

2. Foldables aren’t ready yet, but flexible screens are coming

I wrote about this earlier but it bears repeating: most of the foldable PCs we’ve seen were merely prototypes and the software for them is not finished, either. The pressure on Microsoft to get Windows 10X right so that these PC makers can get their new designs out of the concept stage and onto store shelves is going to be intense.

That pressure is doubled because Windows historically has a Good Version / Bad Version tick tock with Windows. Windows 10X is going to be a first cut at supporting a new, innovative form factor. Microsoft’s last big swing at changing Windows for a new form factor was arguably Windows 8 on the Surface, which didn’t go so well. It’s a very different company now, though. Something to watch.

3. The battle between AMD and Intel will intensify

AMD is taking another shot at legitimacy on laptops while Intel is taking another shot at legitimacy on graphics. Both are getting ready to support the new form factors I just mentioned above and Intel in particular is trying to invent new ones itself.

New form factors always lead to a little bit of chaos, a reordering of winners and losers, and new interface paradigms for computers. But at this point in 2020 it feels like everybody is gearing up for all that chaos. By the end of the year I think we’ll have a much clearer picture of how chaotic it’ll really be.

4. Concepts were everywhere

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Again, I’ve written about this before but it bears repeating. The major cars we saw were concepts or prototypes. The most interesting phone thing we saw — the OnePlus Concept One — literally has “concept” in its name. (Though I will say I was taken aback by the interest in Samsung’s new “lite” phones.)

I’d also put Samsung’s cute little Ballie robot firmly in this category, along with a few other things we saw. All this is very unsatisfying and I’d prefer more real products, obviously. But even as concepts most of what we saw didn’t really feel like it had a firm direction or purpose.

5. Quibi is ambitious but unproven

Image: Quibi

I said before that Quibi is the thing we’ll most likely remember as the Big Launch of CES 2020. That’s fitting, because Quibi’s launch was fairly concept-y. We didn’t get a look at the app, for example.

But the thing I learned is that however ambitious you think Katzenberg and Whitman are, you’re not thinking big enough. Ambition is not the same thing as success, though, and the stakes for Quibi’s actual launch later this year are going to be very high.

6. Smaller companies are chafing under big tech

Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

Sonos absolutely stole the story of the show with its lawsuit against Google coming out just hours before the CES show floor opened. It started a conversation not just about Sonos and Google, but more generally about how small and mid-sized tech companies live in a world created by big tech giants (just like the rest of us).

Right now, it’s successful companies like Spotify and Sonos that are pushing the hardest as they probably feel the most confident they won’t get crushed in a fight without anybody noticing it happened. I think in 2020 you will see more — and smaller — companies find ways to push back, perhaps with the help of regulators.

(By the way, check out Adi Robertson’s excellent analysis of what’s up with Sonos’ suit.)

7. Sex tech de-stigmatization is inevitable

Photo by Ashley Carman / The Verge

I don’t want to suggest that most people thought there is something vulgar about sex tech and CES changed that. Quite the opposite: our cultural norms have progressed to the point where we have been having healthier conversations about sex in all sorts of contexts.

Last year, the powers that be at CES showed how out of touch they were before the backlash forced the CTA to get with the times. That doesn’t mean that the lobbying group is suddenly a paragon of cultural innovation — far from it. But the point is that even the CES organization had to adopt a more inclusive stance. Good.

8. Tech companies fetishized AI, 8K, and 5G a little less, finally

Those three buzzwords are so totemic that Foxconn just sort of blurted them out in defense of the its factory fiasco in Wisconsin. For some time it was impossible to hear any other tech company tout a product without using one of those terms. But this year, it seems like the bubble burst on all three.

Lots of companies still tout AI like it’s magic, but nobody is buying it. Companies still insist on mentioning AI in their press releases, but don’t wait for you to ooh an ahh anymore. We all know it’s just another way of saying “computer models do it” and with a few exceptions (like Neon), nobody is pretending otherwise.

As for 8K, the lack of content for those screens and interest in spending gobs of money on them meant that even though we saw it everywhere, nobody was entranced by it.

And as for 5G, well, the networks have started lighting up the service and everybody was forced to admit that the heavens didn’t open up and rain down pure sparkles of innovation. Which meant that while 5G was everywhere, nobody acted like it was anything other than what it is right now: somewhat faster data.


More from CES

The most promising AirPower alternative isn’t ready yet

It was right and just to tease Apple for announcing and then failing utterly to release AirPower. We may never really know the full story, but if the struggles to make this new product are any indication, it’s a hard problem — and that doesn’t even get into the difficulties the Apple Watch adds.

I’ve seen a few direct AirPower clones but this is the one I’m watching the closest because I trust Nomad more than most accessory makers to wait until something is very good before releasing it.

Ashley Carman reports:

But I can see why the pad was delayed: the Base Staton Pro struggled to detect my AirPods Pro, and when I put my phone on the edge of the mat, its OLED screen flickered on and off. At another point, a coil “went down” on the left side, meaning nothing placed on that side could charge, which required me to only use the right side of the pad. Nomad’s team says they’re working alongside Aira to fix these issues and that they’ll only release the pad when it’s ready.

There sure were a ton of Peloton wannabes at CES

Natt Garun rounds up a bunch of machines and — more importantly — breaks down what this trend means and where it’s going.

Byton’s 48-inch screen might not be as distracting as it looks

Sean O’Kane and Ashley Carman joined us on the second episode of The Vergecast — which should be posted sometime today in our podcast feed. Sean and Nilay’s discussion about how car screens are going to rapidly change in the next few years thanks to flexible displays was so fascinating I just sat back and listened even though it’s sort of my job to talk on that show. Anyway, you should check out the story and video Sean made to describe the experience of this screen-centric car.

Panasonic’s VR glasses support HDR and look pretty steampunk

They look dope as hell, but if you’ve been tracking CES this year, you can guess what’s coming next:

Panasonic is unlikely to ever sell these glasses as a consumer product. Instead, it’s pointing to commercial applications that are likely to spring up alongside the rollout of 5G networks, such as virtual travel and VR sports

This is Intel’s first discrete graphics card, but you can’t buy one

Intel made a graphics card but it’s ….a concept, sorta. Still, it details stuff that’s coming for Intel graphics. Sor