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Google and Apple have ‘vice-like grip’ on UK mobiles, warns regulator | Competition and Markets Authority

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Apple and Google have a “vice-like grip” over people’s mobile phones and their duopoly over the market should be investigated by the proposed new “big tech” regulator, the UK’s competition watchdog has said.

The two companies effectively control users’ mobile phone experience in the UK, with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems installed on 99.45% of all phones in use in the country.

“Apple and Google have developed a vice-like grip over how we use mobile phones and we’re concerned that it’s causing millions of people across the UK to lose out,” said Andrea Coscelli, the chief executive of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which published its interim report investigating the dominance of the tech giants in the UK mobile ecosystem on Tuesday.

Once a consumer buys a phone they are essentially wedded to the ecosystem of one of the two companies – Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store and their respective web browsers Safari or Chrome.

The CMA said the two Silicon Valley giants can control the content phone users can access, “tilt the playing field” towards their own services, and stifle competition by blocking rivals services and pre-installing their own software on devices.

“Most people know that Apple and Google are the main players when it comes to choosing a phone,” said Coscelli. “But it can be easy to forget that they set all the rules too – from determining which apps are available on their app stores, to making it difficult for us to switch to alternative browsers on our phones. This control can limit innovation and choice, and lead to higher prices – none of which is good news for users.”

The CMA said it was concerned that this was leading to less competition and meaningful choice for customers, who are missing out on the full benefit of new products and services, such as cloud-based gaming offered by firms not supported by Apple or Google.

Coscelli said that if a move was made to curb the power of the duopoly and open up more choice and competition in the mobile phone market it should be handled by the Digital Markets Unit (DMU), which is in the process of being set up with a remit to crack down on the behaviour of tech giants.

The new DMU, which will be part of the CMA, has been set up in shadow form until the government officially legislates to grant it regulatory powers. The DMU will enforce a code of conduct that the tech giants must follow when dealing with rivals and third parties based on “fair trading, trust and transparency”.

The code will affect only those companies deemed to have strategic market status (SMS), although no tech firms have been officially awarded that status yet.

“Any intervention must tackle the firms’ substantial market power across the key areas of operating systems, app stores and browsers,” said Coscelli. “We think that the best way to do this is through the Digital Markets Unit when it receives powers from government.”

The CMA said that given the scale of Apple and Google they will qualify for SMS and be subject to the DMU’s regulatory overview. The “prioritisation criteria” for a company to be given SMS status is that it earns more than £1bn in UK revenues, or £25bn globally.

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Apple will make in excess of £82bn in profits this year, while Google made £36bn in profits last year.

“We want the UK to remain a place where all tech firms can thrive and this study underlines the importance of ensuring mobile app stores are fair and competitive,” said Chris Philp, the UK government’s tech and digital economy minister.

“Our new pro-competition regime will level the playing field between tech giants and smaller businesses and prevent abuses that could curtail growth and innovation. We are grateful for the CMA’s work to date and look forward to the final recommendations.”

A spokeswoman for Apple said: “Apple believes in thriving and dynamic markets where innovation can flourish. We face intense competition in every segment in which we operate. We will continue to create new opportunities for developers while protecting our user’s privacy and security.”

She added: “Our rules and guidelines are constantly evolving, and we have made many recent changes that benefit developers and consumers alike. We will continue to engage constructively with the UK Competition and Markets Authority as their work on this study progresses.”

A Google spokesman said: “Android provides people with more choice than any other mobile platform in deciding which apps and app stores they use. The Android app ecosystem also supports nearly a quarter of a million jobs across thousands of app developer and phone-maker businesses in the UK. We’re committed to building thriving, open platforms that empower consumers and help developers succeed.”

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VMware fixes buggy vSphere release – and Log4J, too • The Register

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VMware has restored availability of vSphere 7 Update, a release that it withdrew in late 2021 after driver dramas derailed deployments.

Paul Turner, Virtzilla’s veep for vSphere product management, told The Register that the source of the problem was Intel driver updates that arrived out of sync with VMware’s pre-release testing program. When users adopted the new drivers – one of which had been renamed – vSphere produced errors that meant virtual server fleet managers could not sustain high availability operations.

Turner said around 30,000 customers had adopted the release, of which around eight per cent encountered the issue. That collection of around 2,400 impacted users was enough for VMware to pull the release before the other 270,000 vSphere users hit trouble. That level of potential problems, Turner admitted, was considered a sufficient threshold to justify a do-over and the embarrassment of a pulled release.

VMware has since reviewed its testing program and procedures in the hope it will avoid a repeat of this error. Doing so, and repairing the release, meant a busier-than-usual holiday period for VMware developers. Turner said those who put in the extra hours will be compensated with extra time off in the future.

VMware also used the time needed to get the release ready to ensure that vSphere 7 U3 thoroughly addresses the Log4j bug. It took the opportunity to update to the latest version of the tool – which is free of the critical bug that allowed almost any code to execute without authorisation.

But VMware decided not to add anything new to vSphere while it addressed Log4j and sorted out the driver drama. Users will have to wait a few more months for another dose of VMware’s usual concoction of security updates and feature tweaks.

There’s more interesting stuff on the way, too. VMware has promised a full vSphere-as-a-Service offering is in the works, and the Project Capitola software-defined memory tech that will pool RAM across hosts. The company has also dropped hints that its plan to run its ESX hypervisor on SmartNICs is nearing release.

VMware has detailed the new/old release here and made downloads available here

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Facebook given EU go-ahead to pursue controversial Kustomer acquisition

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The EU’s antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager said she was satisfied for the company now known as Meta to pursue its Kustomer acquisition after it struck a deal for rivals.

Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, has secured antitrust approval from the EU to pursue its acquisition of US customer services software start-up Kustomer.

The social media giant’s decision to acquire the start-up attracted EU scrutiny last April, months before its rebrand. Then known as Facebook, the company planned to integrate Kustomer’s products, including a chatbot, into its service.

Now, Meta has assured the European Commission that it will provide rivals free access to its messaging channels for 10 years.

The EU was satisfied that this addressed competition concerns which previously arose from the company’s decision to acquire Kustomer.

“Our decision today will ensure that innovative rivals and new entrants in the customer relationship management software market can effectively compete,” EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.

Last December, Vestager’s Digital Markets Act was passed by EU lawmakers as part of the body’s plans to tighten the monopoly large multinationals hold in Europe’s digital space.

Facebook had initially announced its acquisition plan in November 2020. In February 2021, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties wrote to the European Commission outlining its concerns over data that Kustomer had gathered and what might happen to that data under Facebook’s watch. The Commission also received a referral request from Austria flagging concerns over the Kustomer deal.

Other Meta acquisitions have also attracted the scrutiny of competition regulators. Last November, the UK ordered Meta to sell Giphy after its acquisition of the GIF making company was found to have breached competition rules. In the US, it is facing an antitrust suit that could force the company to sell WhatsApp and Instagram.

The EU’s decision to allow Meta to pursue the acquisition of Kustomer comes following a recent vote in the European Parliament in favour of the Digital Services Act, a companion of the Digital Markets Act. The act represents the EU’s attempt to shift the balance of power away from Big Tech in favour of ordinary people.

The long-debated act was hailed by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen as a “gold standard”.

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Now that I’ve finally played The Last of Us, who wants to talk about that ending? | Games

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‘OK, Dad, this is an incredible essay on the effects of grief and grey morality in a postapocalyptic society,” says the eldest child, AKA the millennial. “It’s got proper female characters, progressive takes on sexuality and tonnes of rain.”

“They’ve made a video game of The Handmaid’s Tale?”

“No, Dad. It’s The Last of Us. Don’t worry. It’s still a zombie shooter. And both games have the best ending ever.”

Now she has my interest. Video game endings fascinate me, because my generation started out with arcade games that didn’t have them. Pac-Man kept eating dots and chasing ghosts and the Space Invaders kept coming, wave after incessant wave. The first arcade game that had an actual ending was Dragon’s Lair and nobody actually saw that because it was so hard to complete.

I have a tough start with The Last of Us because I hate games where you search for stuff in every room of a house. I spend my normal life doing that with car keys and headphones. I want games where you walk into a room and all the objects get sucked into a magic pocket. But that isn’t realistic, I hear you cry. Well, neither is only being able to carry three shivs in a world where, despite the zombie apocalypse, cargo pants clearly still exist.

The Last of Us.
Jaw-dropping … The Last of Us. Photograph: Sony

I also hate any form of crafting, because that was what my generation had to do for “fun” as kids before we had video games. Whether it’s smoke bombs from sugar and explosives or a set of Action Man drawers from matchboxes, it’s all boring to me.

“Keep going,” I tell myself. “The millennial says it’s got the best ending ever.”

Throughout the first chapter of Joel and Ellie’s jaunt across a post-infected US I keep trying to guess what this great ending will be. Maybe Ellie isn’t immune to infection after all? Maybe Joel is her real father? Maybe they’re both unwitting participants in some reality TV show, I’m Infected Get Me Out of Here?

As you will all know by now – and if you’ve yet to play The Last of Us then please stop reading – the ending has Joel murder a perfectly innocent and well-intentioned doctor who wants to cut Ellie open to find a cure that will save humanity. But Joel has no truck with utilitarian philosophy, because Ellie has now become a replacement for the daughter he lost. So, he disregards mankind’s future and, by stopping the operation, effectively murders the entire human race (alongside a whole hospital’s worth of doctors).

“Why does he do that?” I asked the millennial, in one of many fantastic discussions we had about the game.

“Because he’s a white male,” came the answer, because it’s 2022 and she’s in her 20s. And maybe she’s right. Either way it is a jaw-dropping, supremely brave ending and the terrific Left Behind side-story also brought the feels.

The Last of Us Part 2
Grey morality … Ellie in The Last of Us Part 2. Photograph: Naughty Dog

So, when it came to The Last of Us Part 2, I was beyond excited. Fifty million hours later I was beyond disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, the millennial nailed it when she said it was a great exploration of the effects of grief and grey morality. But after spending the whole game switching between two strong female characters (literally, have you seen Abby’s arms?) and contrasting factional creeds, you have the final confrontation. They fight. And … they both live. And go their separate ways. The only real damage is Ellie losing a couple of fingers, and the game portrays the worst consequence of this as not being able to play guitar any more. Seriously? That’s the biggest drawback to being fingerless in a zombie apocalypse? The first game ended with Joel murdering an entire civilisation, the second ends with Ellie murdering one song on a guitar. It’s a scene you might have found in The Secret of Monkey Island. It’s hilarious.

The Last of Us Part 2 leaves us with exactly the same non-ending as those original arcade games. Ellie and Abby will go on killing to keep their respective postapocalyptic factions going, both driven by the grief of murdered loved ones. They are both trapped, endlessly chasing ghosts. Sounds familiar…

The millennial says this shows there are no winners when it comes to revenge. I say they want both protagonists alive for The Last of Us 3. It’s a cynical cop out. But then, The Last of Us Part 2 is a game that features the most cynical scene ever, where apropos of nothing, after genuinely bravura portrayals of women, transgender and gay characters, alpha female Abby suddenly gets rogered from behind by some guy. It happens out of nowhere. The game spends umpteen hours portraying progressive sexuality, and then it’s like some marketing man decided they needed to toss the incels a piece of red meat to stop them hate-bombing all over 4chan (which didn’t work). It is easily the most gratuitous bit of nudity I have ever seen in games, and I have played The Witcher 3. The rogerer in question even has a girlfriend. Who is pregnant. Way to shit on a sister, Abby.

“It’s basically Pac-Man with gratuitous boobs,” I say to my eldest, who sighs and pours herself a large cup of coffee. This will be another long discussion.

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