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Gadgets have stopped working together, and it’s becoming an issue | Smartphones

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In 2001, if you listened to digital music, you did it with a large folder of MP3 files. How you acquired them is probably best left between you and a priest, but you may have ripped them from a CD, downloaded them from a file sharing service, or bought them from one of a few nascent download sites.

Whichever option you picked, you’d play them on your computer with a program built for the task. And if you were lucky enough to have an early standalone MP3 player, it was probably made by another company again.

Whether or not MP3s interested you, you probably bought your music on CD, and had a couple of players in the house – maybe a portable one and a hi-fi. Your headphones, of course, connected to whatever you were using, be that a simple Discman or a fancy Nomad Jukebox, with a normal 3.5mm plug.

Today, for millions of people around the world, all those companies have been replaced by one: Apple. You listen to Apple Music on your Apple iPhone through your Apple AirPods. Sure, competitors exist, but with each passing year they struggle to offer a service on parity. Want to use headphones made by a different company? You need to buy a dongle to plug them in if they’re wired, and you won’t have access to the fancy new “spatial audio” streams Apple now offers if they’re Bluetooth. Want to switch to Spotify? You can, but make sure you never accidentally hit “play” when nothing’s on, or Apple Music will start right back up.

Nostalgia is an ill-fitting emotion for the technology sector, where exponential growth rules. The phone in your pocket – possibly even the watch on your wrist – is substantially more powerful than the desktop computer you may have stashed those music files on, and is connected via a cellular connection a hundred times faster than the 56K modem you used to download your MP3s to an internet unimaginably larger and more useful.

But alongside those wild improvements have come other changes with a more mixed outcome. A concentration of power at the top of the industry; a focus on building easy-to-use gadgets over powerful general-purpose devices; and a shift from programs and files to websites and APIs: all have left us in this slightly run-down sci-fi future. Simply put, nothing works with anything else any more, and it’s starting to become a problem.

Interoperability is the technical term for what we’ve lost as tech has matured. Software can be interoperable, either through common, open file formats, or through different programs speaking directly to one another, and so too can hardware: open standards are what allow you to use any headphones with any music player, for instance, or buy a TV without worrying if it will work with your streaming set-up.

Home recorded cassette tapes stacked up in front of a 1990s style cassette, radio and and CD player.
Pre-digital interoperability between brands and formats wasn’t an issue. Photograph: Simon Turner/Alamy Stock Photo

It was a hard-fought victory. Think, for instance, of the hassle of receiving a text document a few years back. Not only would you be lucky to be able to open it using a different program from the one that made it – you would frequently need to have exactly the same version of the program, or face issues.

Some of those difficulties were deliberate. Microsoft’s .doc file format, for instance, was used by MS Word for decades, with key details kept hidden behind a restrictive licence. The company very deliberately didn’t want competitors to be able to make software that could read and make Word files without paying it for the trouble. Microsoft’s market dominance meant that it could hamper competing software with the opposite approach: refusing to support their file formats on its own platforms, effectively limiting the ability to collaborate.

Even with the best will in the world, though, it’s a hard goal to achieve. A notorious instalment of the XKCD webcomic details one pitfall: “Situation: there are 14 competing standards,” says the caption to two people discussing how they need to come up with a better way to make all these things work together. The punchline is that “Soon: there are 15 competing standards.”

But by the dawn of the mobile era, there had been progress. The success of standards such as MP3 for music, JPEG for pictures and MPEG for movies had led to a blossoming of consumer tech that could display and play media, while the internet had helped push compatibility to the front of users’ minds: when your pool of collaborators is larger than the people you can walk a floppy disk over to, it’s more important than ever that your software work with everyone, to the point that even Microsoft switched Word over to an open standard.

And then the industry changed.


When the iPhone came out, it was a very different device from what it became. With no App Store, and a model that required a computer to sync to on a regular basis, it was firmly an accessory to the machines where the real business happened. But even as the App Store arrived and the mobile economy flourished, one limitation stuck around: the phones eschewed the old files-and-folders-based model entirely, in favour of each app having access to its own data and nothing else. It would prove consequential.

In the PC files-and-folders era, interoperability was, ultimately, down to users. Software may or may not be compatible, but the decision to try to make a file in one program and open it in another was entirely up to you. You could use two programs made by developers that had never even heard of each other and, so long as they worked with the same open file format, there was interoperability. That’s not true any more.

Even as updates to mobile phone operating systems have allowed apps more freedom to send data back and forth, the same freedom hasn’t been restored to the user. And when two apps are negotiating whether or not to work together, it’s more than just a simple question of technology.

“There’s a ton of issues here,” says Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, “but I think one of the major ones is economics. As data becomes more of an asset, it becomes difficult to exchange that data across multiple different parties in an ecosystem, because they’re monetising that asset. And there’s also a lot of stipulations associated with what happens should there be a violation.”

Apple iPod advertisements in San Francisco, 2005.
Apple iPod advertisements in San Francisco, 2005. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For many companies, the obvious way around this is to give up on those tricky negotiations altogether – or to hand them off to a larger, more powerful third party. “One of the things that we’re seeing more of, because there’s a consumer push towards this, is using things like Google and Facebook as data sinks,” Lightman says. “Consumers are pushed to say, ‘Well, I want to use this other app,’ a dating app or a productivity app, ‘but I don’t want to fill in all this information, I just want a connection between the two, and I want to shove all the information that I have in Google into this app.’”

Sharing everything you have via Facebook or Google is interoperability of a sort. It’s certainly convenient to be able to log in to Tinder without typing a password, and to automatically populate your dating profile with pictures lifted straight from Instagram. But it’s necessarily limited, both to the services offered by these big companies, and by the fact that they’re not going to help competitors. Notoriously, for instance, Facebook blocked Twitter-owned short video app Vine from this sort of interoperability because, according to an FTC complaint, it wanted to kneecap its rival’s chances of succeeding in the field.

There are exceptions. Perhaps the most famous service bucking the trend has the unwieldy name “IFTTT”, short for “If this then that”. The site’s goal is to be a sort of plumbing for the internet, letting users link together disparate services in all the ways they are normally barred from doing. You can use it, for instance, to send a tweet every time you like a YouTube video, to play the radio when you turn on the (smart) lights in the morning, or just to wire up a big button that orders pizza from Domino’s when you slam it.

But even IFTTT has simply smoothed over the difficulties with making things work together, rather than solving them completely. In fact, its very presence has hindered further openness, some users say: Amazon’s smart home devices, for instance, bar users from building automation using other tools, even if they’re more powerful. For a company of Amazon’s size, simplicity isn’t just a selling point to users: it’s also appealing for Amazon itself. Better to funnel people down one supported service than have to train staff on how to deal with myriad potential problems.

For some, there’s only one outcome that will properly fix things: regulation. Damien Geradin is outside counsel for the Coalition for App Fairness, an industry group that represents companies including Spotify, Tile and Tinder, and has been leading the charge to make interoperability a legal requirement.

“When it comes to Apple, they really like this vertically integrated business model,” Geradin says. “I don’t think that we can say that interoperability has been lost, because it’s never been there. It’s been like that from day one. They like to do everything in house, and they don’t like to make things compatible.

“Now, I think that nobody would challenge that when Apple was a very small company. But now it has become this giant. And it has become a bottleneck in the sense that if you want your app to be distributed on the on iOS devices, you have to go to the App Store. You cannot live without Apple if you’re an app developer. You can’t say ‘screw Apple’, but we want to be able to interoperate, we want to be freer.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook
Apple CEO Tim Cook leaves court earlier this month after testifying in a federal court case brought by Epic Games, maker of the game Fortnite, which claims that Apple has transformed its App Store into an illegal monopoly. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP

Geradin’s group is spearheading a complaint with the European Commission demanding that Apple restore some of that freedom. It’s just one of many such pushes across the world: in America, Epic Games is in the midst of a bruising legal showdown with Apple over much the same issues, while Amazon, Facebook and Google have been dragged into identical battles over their control of their own platforms.

There’s a real chance that we come out of this decade with some of tech’s largest players legally required to begin the painful process of opening up their platforms to the competition – and so, slowly, restoring some of that dream.

In fact, some of the change is coming already. In April, Facebook, seemingly to pre-empt regulatory enforcement, announced an expansion to its “data portability tool”, a feature of the site that lets users send their data from Facebook to other sites and services.

“The ecosystem we are building to support data portability will not come to fruition without regulation that clarifies which data should be made portable and who is responsible for protecting data once it has been transferred,” wrote Facebook’s Steve Satterfield, director of privacy and public policy, in a post announcing the company’s latest feat of interoperability: the ability to directly transfer text posts on Facebook into Google Docs.

Nobody said change was easy, but it’s a start.

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Pushing Buttons: Happy 50th birthday to Atari, whose simple games gave us so much | Games

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Welcome to Pushing Buttons, the Guardian’s gaming newsletter. If you’d like to receive it in your inbox every week, just pop your email in below – and check your inbox (and spam) for the confirmation email.

Sign up for Pushing Buttons, our weekly guide to what’s going on in video games.

This week marks a truly important video game anniversary: it is 50 years since Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney incorporated Atari Inc, the company that laid the foundations for the video games industry. There have been many appraisals of the company and its landmark achievements in the games press over the past few days – from the arrival of a Pong machine in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, in 1972, through classic titles such as Breakout, Asteroids and Missile Commands, to the iconic home consoles. So many moments of creative genius, so many genres, concepts and conventions bursting into existence at the hands of scruffy engineers and designers such as Ed Logg, Larry Kaplan and Dona Bailey.

But one element that often gets overlooked in these nostalgic reveries is the way in which Atari taught the first generation of electronic gamers how to think symbolically. With two rectangles and a square, Pong invited us to visualise tennis, while Night Driver’s series of moving rectangles convinced us we were driving a car. Some will point to the 1972 console the Magnavox Odyssey as the originator of these concepts, but it was Atari putting them in arcade machines – and later consoles –all over the world.

It was also Atari that generated a whole universe around its simple games. Through beautiful cabinet designs, expert use of iconography and graphic design, and the gorgeous illustrations on its Atari VCS cartridges, the company sought to simulate the imagination of players before they even held the controller. The boxes for titles such as Berzerk and Defender, all highly abstract and visually simple games, were alive with drama; they showed human characters, explosions and colours that were impossible to achieve on screen at the time, quietly providing players with the imaginative tools they needed to become immersed. Would we have cared so much about the fate of the lifeless rock at the base of the screen in Missile Command if it hadn’t been for George Opperman’s package art? The tense commander at his desk, the explosions, the missiles seemingly scorching out of the box itself …

It was George Opperman who also designed Atari’s now legendary logo, consisting of three simple lines, the two exterior shafts curving inwards toward the peak. Over the years Opperman claimed many influences for his design – Mount Fuji, Japanese alphabet symbols, Pong itself – personally, I’ve always viewed it as a spaceship. But it’s how the image seems to sum up the excitement and futuristic promise of the company that really matters. When we see the logo flash briefly on the screen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, it’s a quick visual signifier that this is a highly technological landscape. It fits in perfectly with a world of androids and flying cars.

Nolan Bushnell saw how video games could naturally bleed from the screen into real space, meat space. During the 1970s, the industry started in pubs and taverns, then moved into arcades and eventually the home, and they had effects on all of them: they changed behaviours and got written into our lives in subtle ways. His introduction of the Chuck E Cheese pizza restaurant chain, which combined family eating with a video game arcade, brilliantly monetised the ways that games, although graphically simple, had worked their way from the TV screen to dinner table conversation. We laugh about how the original VCS console had wood panelling, but this was a deliberate attempt to ape the aesthetics of the 1970s living room, with its wooden furniture, TV and stereo cabinets. Atari understood that assimilation would be a vital element of success.

Even now, in this age of near photorealism, video games rely on the kind of abstractions that Atari perfected. The heart symbols to denote the number of lives we have left; the heavy use of icons and exterior narratives; the endless references to familiar cinema tropes. We saw Atari being played on TV shows and films, we saw Atari in comics. While its games were still being drawn with two sprites each a single byte in size, the iconography of Atari was out there in the world. It’s something Nintendo would learn from, and later Sony, with its cultural melting pot of a console: the PlayStation. Atari was a myth maker too: from the Easter egg hidden in Adventure to the buried copies of E.T. in the California desert, the company itself became a source of digital folklore that took on meanings beyond anything portrayed on your TV.

50 years ago, Atari began to show us that games exist in a strange liminal space between the screen and the brain, and they are constantly able to escape. The dots on the screen are only ever part of the picture, and the picture never stops moving.

What to play

This week we recommend the knockout Capcom Fighting Collection.
This week we recommend the knockout Capcom Fighting Collection. Photograph: Capcom

While we’re in a nostalgic mood, I’m really enjoying Capcom Fighting Collection. You’d probably expect a dozen famous titles from the Street Fighter series, but that’s already been covered by Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection. Instead, we get five games from the spooky, goth-infused Darkstalkers series, the mid-1990s fantasy-themed Red Earth and a bunch of offbeat Street Fighter dalliances including the ridiculously compelling Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, which brilliantly combined fighting game dynamics with … Tetris. The games are filled with blistering attacks and truly imaginative character designs, all lovingly updated for the modern era.

Available on: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
Approximate playtime: As long as you want

What to read

  • Eurogamer is running a whole series of features for Pride, including this piece talking to Captain Fluke about being the first openly trans esports commentator and this one on the joy of gay fan faction and mods. Elsewhere, IGN has listed its favourite ever LGBT+ characters in video games.

  • Verge has a really interesting piece on a group of creatives making branded worlds for big companies in Fortnite. Everyone talks about Facebook when referencing the coming era of the metaverse, but I’m pretty sure Fortnite is going to be just as important as an explorable shared space for interconnected worlds – and the advertising potential therein.

  • We also found out this week that Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creative genius behind Dark Souls and Elden Ring, is almost finished on his next project. This is good news for me as, after 225 hours, I’m nearing the end of Elden Ring and would be very happy to slide straight into his next game if possible.

  • If I’ve got you interested in Atari’s design and illustration philosophy, The Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino is a gorgeous book. For a more technical analysis of the company, try Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost.

What to click

‘A little bit addictive and the right amount hard’: new video game is based on poems of Emily Dickinson

Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest review – lovable gamers on mission to break record

Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes review – wild battles liven up a familiar anime franchise

Melbourne startup raises $9m for mental wellness game based on tending houseplants

Question block

This week’s question comes from Tim and his daughter Caitlin, and is answered by Keza:

“We got really into Hades over lockdown, loving the ‘it’s the same each time but really different too’ concept as well as the lore and the artwork. Can you recommend a similar game that we could play together?”

Hades is what’s known as a roguelike – one of those games where you have to start again from the beginning each time, but each playthrough throws different challenges at you – and, happily for you both, this genre has been having a moment over the past few years. Hades is a contender for the very best game in this genre, so it’s hard to rival, but here are some others to try.

Dead Cells is a kind of cyberpunk-fantasy action game where you gradually explore a shapeshifting castle; Spelunky 2 has you delving down below the Earth through caves full of amusing hazards, and has a great sense of humour (you can also play co-op); Into the Breach is something a little different, a strategy game where you have to defend the world from hostile invaders, travelling back in time after each failed attempt. And for a story and art style as good as that of Hades with a different gameplay feel, try developer Supergiant’s previous games Pyre, Transistor and Bastion, if you haven’t already.

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China says it has photographed all of Mars from orbit • The Register

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China is claiming that as of Wednesday, its Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter has officially photographed the entire Red Planet. And it’s shown off new photos of the southern polar cap and a volcano to prove it.

“It has acquired the medium-resolution image data covering the whole globe of Mars, with all of its scientific payloads realizing a global survey,” state-sponsored media quoted the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announcing.

Among the images are one of Mount Askra with its crater, shots of the South Pole whose ice sheet is believed to consist of solid carbon dioxide and ice, the seven-kilometer deep Valles Marineris canyon, and the geomorphological characteristics of the rim of the Mund crater.

Mount Askela

Mount Askela. Click to enlarge

Mars South Pole

Mars South Pole. Click to enlarge

Valles Marineris

Valles Marineris. Click to enlarge

Geomorphology of the rim of the Mund Crater

Mund crater. Click to enlarge

Tianwen-1 had been in orbit around Mars for 706 days. The orbiter circled Mars 1,344 times, as of an announcement from CNSA. The space org said Tianwen-1 has completed its scheduled missions.

In conjunction with its rover Zhurong, Tianwen-1 amassed 1,040 gigabytes of raw scientific data through 13 onboard scientific payloads.

The mission has allowed CNSA to observe solar occultation and solar wind together with international observatories – including those in Russia, Germany, Italy, Australia and South Africa – to improve the accuracy of space weather forecasts. Good news for Matt Damon.

CNSA said it will share more scientific data with the international community in due course.

In December, Zhurong and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft performed an in-orbit relay communication test to demonstrate it was possible to relay data from Zhurong back to Earth via Mars Express. The demonstration was successful, if a bit complicated – Mars Express had to “listen” for Zhurong since the rover was unable to communicate directly because the frequencies used don’t match.

Even though the mission is officially over, the orbiter and rover are still in working order. The orbiter will stay in orbit and continue its remote sensing and data relay activities while Zhurong will hibernate until weather conditions improve – likely in December. ®

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Collisons join A-list backers of Entrepreneur First’s $158m Series C

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Founded in 2011, Entrepreneur First’s portfolio has grown to more than 500 companies, which together are worth more than $10bn.

London-based scale-up investor Entrepreneur First has raised $158m in a Series C funding round, with backing from some of the world’s biggest tech founders.

The funding round included participation from Stripe co-founders Patrick and John Collison. They were joined by Wise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus (who also launched a new VC fund this week), LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg, Monzo co-founder Tom Blomfield, Nested co-founder and CEO Matt Robinson, and many others.

There was also investment from longstanding institutional backers such as Transpose Platform, Vitruvian Partners, Encore Capital and Isomer Capital.

“It feels right that this round of funding comes from the most successful technology founders of today,” Entrepreneur First CEO Matt Clifford said. “Their support will build their counterparts of tomorrow.”

Founded in 2011, Entrepreneur First describes itself as “the best place in the world to meet your co-founder”. It says the best companies come from co-founding partnerships, but that finding the right person can be hugely challenging.

Entrepreneur First invests in early-stage founder talent. It works to bring people together from all walks of life to help meet potential co-founders, while giving them access to advisers in a three-month programme.

The company currently has 120 employees with offices in London, Toronto, Paris, Berlin, Bangalore and Singapore.

Its portfolio now includes more than 500 companies, which together exceed $10bn in value. These companies include computer vision unicorn Tractable, employment platform Omnipresent and advertising infrastructure platform Permutive.

“We built a way for the world’s most talented people, from all walks of life, to come together to find co-founders and build from scratch,” Clifford said. “Now, that fix has introduced co-founders who wouldn’t have otherwise met, to build companies that wouldn’t have been built.”

Entrepreneur First aims to see the value of companies built from its platform cross $100bn and beyond in the years to come.

“What we do may no longer seem crazy, as it did 10 years ago,” Clifford added. “But we’re just as committed to keep innovating to serve entrepreneurs better – and be the best place in the world to find a co-founder.”

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