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Googler demolishes one of Apple’s monopoly defenses – that web apps are just as good as native iOS software • The Register

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Epic Games and Apple faced off in an Oakland, California, courtroom on Monday to resolve the gaming giant’s antitrust claim that Apple’s App Store represents an illegal monopoly.

Epic last year sued Apple after being denied the ability to sell digital goods for its Fortnite game using its own payment service rather than Apple’s In-App Payment API. If Epic prevails and Apple’s inevitable appeals get rebuffed, the power of digital platform owners to dictate the terms of market participation will be significantly diminished, in America at least.

On Friday, Alex Russell, a software engineer at Google – and the big G is also being sued by Epic for Play Store restrictions – personally published a rebuttal to one of the central tenets of Apple’s defense – that developers can compete with iOS apps by making web apps.

Apple has argued as much to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission [PDF], starting that Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) represent a viable distribution alternative to the App Store. Apple CEO Tim Cook made a similar claim last year in Congressional testimony. He said that Apple is not the sole decision maker for web apps, suggesting the web offers a viable alternative distribution channel to the iOS App Store.

And Apple put forth that same argument in its opening materials for Epic v. Apple, with a slide that declares, “Epic’s Theory is Based on a False Premise.”

It depicts The Financial Times’ web app and native iOS app side by side, the almost identical designs suggesting the two are interchangeable.

Epic v. Apple slide showing similar web app, native app

Apple’s slide defending its position … Click to enlarge

In fact, web apps and native apps are distinctly different in their technical capabilities, and Russell contends Apple’s glacial pace of integrating modern web APIs into Safari and its WebKit rendering engine have left web apps, on iOS devices at least, unable to compete with native iOS apps.

“Apple’s iOS browser (Safari) and engine (WebKit) are uniquely under-powered,” he writes. “Consistent delays in the delivery of important features ensure the web can never be a credible alternative to its proprietary tools and App Store.”

Certainly among web browsers there’s limited room for competition and differentiation on iOS – Apple requires all mobile web browsers on iDevices to use its WebKit rendering engine. This makes the iOS versions of Brave, Chrome, and Edge (Chromium-based, with the Blink rendering engine), and Firefox (based on the Gecko rendering engine) essentially clones of Safari under the hood.

But where web browsers face a level playing field upon which no competition is allowed, web apps risk being tripped up by Apple’s indifferent groundskeeping while their native app counterparts race in paved lanes.

For Russell, performance isn’t really an issue. He concedes that all modern browsers are fast because there’s not that much more speed to be eked out after two decades of web tech rivalry.

Rather, he points to Safari’s lack of compatibility with web standards and claims it’s holding the entire web ecosystem back. Not only does Safari fail when it comes to compatibility with numerous web standards – illustrated by this Web Platform Test graph– but Russel contends Safari’s implementation of these features is often wrong.

“In almost every area, Apple’s low-quality implementation of features WebKit already supports requires workarounds,” he writes. “Developers would not need to find and fix these issues in Firefox (Gecko) or Chrome/Edge/Brave/Samsung Internet (Blink). This adds to the expense of developing for iOS.”

Apple’s web gap can also be measured in terms of APIs. By Russell’s count, Safari has been failing further and further behind in implementing web APIs, which make specific technical features available to developers. Safari is now something like 1000 APIs behind Chrome, double the gap measured in 2016, and 300 or so behind Firefox.

Russell allows that in some instances, Safari has outpaced Chrome, like implementing the Storage Access API as a privacy measure. However, he takes the opportunity to skewer Apple for botching the job, noting that its initial implementation created a worse tracking vector before it was repaired.

Glossing over the privacy improvements driven by Apple (and Brave and Mozilla), he enumerates various other API where Safari’s lack of support has hindered web apps. Among them are: getUserMedia(), WebRTC, Gamepad API, Audio Worklets, IndexedDB, Pointer Lock, Media Recorder, Pointer Events, Service Workers, WebM and VP8/VP9, CSS Typed Object Model, CSS Containment, to name a few.

“These omissions mean web developers cannot compete with their native app counterparts on iOS in critical categories like gaming, shopping, and creative tools,” Russell argues.

There are, Russell insists, multiple crucial features available on every other operating system that Apple doesn’t support in iOS. These include things like: Push Notification, PWA Install Prompts, Media Session API, Navigation Preloads, and maybe 20 other technologies that have the potential to enable new classes of applications on the web and new businesses.

Russell concludes that Safari/WebKit lags the competition in terms of compatibility and features, “resulting in a large and persistent gap with Apple’s native platform.”

Epic has advanced a version of this argument in its case against Apple by citing a deposition from Scott Forstall, former Apple SVP of iOS Software, in which Forstall asserts that native apps provide a better experience than web apps.

An in his opening day trial testimony, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney made a similar point. “Web apps are not nearly powerful enough to run a modern 3D experience such as Fortnite,” he said.

If District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers – who will decide the case instead of a jury – finds merit in this claim and concludes the App Store is an unlawful monopoly, Apple’s iOS walled garden and others like it could crumble.

The Register asked Apple for comment and also inquired to /dev/null. Both responded exactly the same way. ®

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Virtual contact worse than no contact for over-60s in lockdown, says study | Coronavirus

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Virtual contact during the pandemic made many over-60s feel lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, new research has found.

Many older people stayed in touch with family and friends during lockdown using the phone, video calls, and other forms of virtual contact. Zoom choirs, online book clubs and virtual bedtime stories with grandchildren helped many stave off isolation.

But the study, among the first to comparatively assess social interactions across households and mental wellbeing during the pandemic, found many older people experienced a greater increase in loneliness and long-term mental health disorders as a result of the switch to online socialising than those who spent the pandemic on their own.

“We were surprised by the finding that an older person who had only virtual contact during lockdown experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health impacts than an older person who had no contact with other people at all,” said Dr Yang Hu of Lancaster University, who co-wrote the report, published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.

“We were expecting that a virtual contact was better than total isolation but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for older people,” he added.

The problem, said Hu, was that older people unfamiliar with technology found it stressful to learn how to use it. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the extensive use of the medium over lockdown so stressful that it was more damaging to their mental health than simply coping with isolation and loneliness.

“Extensive exposure to digital means of communication can also cause burnout. The results are very consistent,” said Hu, who collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the UK and 1,391 in the US – both before and during the pandemic.

“It’s not only loneliness that was made worse by virtual contact, but general mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a direct result of their use of virtual contact,” he said.

The report, Covid-19, Inter-household Contact and Mental Wellbeing Among Older Adults in the US and the UK, analysed national data from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society Covid-19 survey and the US Health and Retirement Study.

Hu said more emphasis needed to be placed on safe ways to have face-to-face contact in future emergencies. There must also, he added, be a drive to bolster the digital capacity of the older age groups.

“We need to have disaster preparedness,” he said. “We need to equip older people with the digital capacity to be able to use technology for the next time a disaster like this comes around.”

The findings outlined the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally enhanced future in response to population ageing in the longer term, added Hu.

“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental wellbeing,” he said.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, welcomed the report. “We know the virtual environment can exacerbate those feelings of not actually being there with loved ones in person,” she said.

“It’s essential therefore that government makes preventing and tackling loneliness a top policy priority, backed up with adequate funding.

“It’s not over the top to point out that in the worst cases, loneliness can kill in the sense that it undermines resilience to health threats of many kinds, as well as leading to older people in the twilight of their lives losing all hope, so they lack a reason to carry on.”

Patrick Vernon, associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, said he saw many examples of older people using technology to stay connected in “really positive ways”.

But he was also doubtful: “We know that even for those who are online, lack of skills and confidence can prevent people from using the internet in the ways that they’d like to.”

Previous research by the Centre for Ageing Better found that since the pandemic, there had been significant increases in the use of digital technology among those aged 50-70 years who were already online.

But there are still 3 million people across the UK who are offline, with a significant digital divide affecting low-income households. Twenty-seven per cent of people aged 50-70 with an annual household income under £25,000 were offline before the pandemic.

Vernon said: “Our research has found that some people who were offline found it difficult to connect with family, friends and neighbours during the pandemic – and even those who were online said technology didn’t compensate for missing out on physical social interactions.”

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For a true display of wealth, dab printer ink behind your ears instead of Chanel No. 5 • The Register

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Printer ink continues to rank as one of the most expensive liquids around with a litre of the home office essential costing the same as a very high-end bottle of bubbly or an oak-aged Cognac.

Consumer advocate Which? has found that ink bought from printer manufactures can be up to 286 per cent more expensive than third-party alternatives.

Dipping its nib in one inkwell before delicately wiping off the excess on some blotting paper, Which? found that a multipack of colour ink (cyan, magenta, yellow) for the WorkForce WF-7210DTW printer costs £75.49 from Epson.

“This works out at an astonishing £2,410 a litre – or £1,369 for a pint,” said Which?.

The consumer outfit also reported that since the Epson printer also requires a separate Epson black cartridge for £31.99, it takes the combined cost of replacement inks for the Workforce printer to a wallet-busting £107.98.

On the other hand, if people ditched the brand and opted for a full set of black and colour inks from a reputable third-party supplier, it would cost just £10.99 – less than a tenth of the price.

Printing has become essential for plenty of workers holed up at home during the pandemic. The survey by Which? of 10,000 consumers found 54 per cent use their printer at least once a week. Which? said it estimates an inkjet cartridge would need to be replaced three times a year.

The report discovered tactics used by the big vendors to promote the use of “approved”, “original”, and “guaranteed” ink supplies.

It found Epson devices, for example, flagging up a “non-genuine ink detected” message on its LCD screen when using a non-Epson cartridge, and HP printers are actively blocking customers from using non-HP supplies.

Adam French, a consumer rights champion at Which?, reckons this situation is simply unacceptable.

“Printer ink shouldn’t cost more than a bottle of high-end Champagne or Chanel No. 5,” said French. “We’ve found that there are lots of third-party products that are outperforming their branded counterparts at a fraction of the cost.”

In a rallying call to consumers he said that third-party ink should be a personal choice and not “dictated by the make of your printer.”

“Which? will continue to make consumers aware of the staggering cost differences between own-brand and third-party inks and give people the information they need to buy the best ink for their printer,” he said.

Which is exactly what the Consumers Association said almost 20 years ago when it reported that printer ink cost around £1,700 a litre. Then – as now – the Consumer Association advised consumers to steer clear of brand-name printer cartridges and pick cheaper alternatives instead.

The survey by Which? found that 16 third party brands beat the big brands in terms of ink prices.

Epson wasn’t the only printer biz to be singled out for sky-high ink prices. Canon, and HP were fingered too.

For its part, Epson said customers “should be offered choice… to meet their printing needs” and listed a number of options including its EcoTank systems and a monthly Ink Subscription service.

And in a nod to anyone looking to save money by using a third party, Epson said: “Finally, as non-genuine inks are not designed or tested by Epson we cannot guarantee that these inks will not damage the printer. Whilst Epson does not prevent the use of non-Epson inks, we believe that it is reasonable, indeed responsible, that a warning is displayed as any damage caused by the use of the inks may invalidate the warranty.”

As part of its investigation, Which? found that some HP printers use a system called “dynamic security” which recognises cartridges that use non-HP chips and stops them from working.

HP has tried to battle against third party ink makers trying to capture supplies sales by overhauling the model of its printer business: by shifting to ink tanks printers that come pre-loaded with supplies for an estimated timeframe; or by selling the printer hardware for more upfront and allowing biz customers or consumers to buy the supplies they want.

In response to Which?, HP said it “offers quality, sustainable and secure print supplies with a range of options for customers to choose from, including HP Instant Ink – a convenient printing subscription service with over 9 million users that can save UK customers up to 70 per cent on ink costs, with ink plans starting at £0.99 per month.”

Reg readers may remember the kerfuffle around HP’s Instant Ink. The free plan was reinstated, sort of. For existing customers.

Over at Canon, a spokesperson said third-party ink products can work with its printers, but the “technology inside is designed to function correctly with our genuine inks which are formulated specifically to work with Canon technology.”

“Customers are encouraged to use genuine inks to ensure the longevity of their printer, and also to ensure that their final prints are of a standard we deem Canon quality. In addition, the use of third party inks invalidates the warranty of the printer.”

With almost four in ten (39 per cent) people saying that they do not use third-party cartridges because of fears that they might not work with their printer, it might go some way to explain why more than half (56 per cent) of the consumers quizzed said they persist with using potentially pricey original-branded cartridges despite cheaper alternatives being available. ®

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Repligen to create 130 new jobs in Waterford site expansion

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The project adds to the 74 people already employed at the Artesyn Biosolutions facility acquired by Repligen in 2020.

Repligen Corporation is undertaking an expansion of its Waterford site which will see 130 new jobs created, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, TD, has announced.

The life sciences company is building a new 3,000 sq m facility which will be a centre of excellence for single-use consumable products used in bioprocessing applications. The site currently hosts a 1,000 sq m facility employing 74 people, which was established by Ireland’s Artesyn Biosolutions before that company was acquired by Repligen last November.

Repligen Corporation is a multinational that produces bioprocessing products for use in the pharmaceutical manufacturing process. Headquartered in Massachusetts, the company has sites across the United States and in Estonia, France, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, as well as here in Ireland.

According to the company, the new building will be certified silver on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system from the US Green Building Council. The consumable products manufactured there will be used in filtration and chromatography systems during the production of vaccines and other biopharmaceutical products.

Commenting on the announcement, Varadkar said: “This is excellent news from Repligen with the creation of 130 new jobs in Waterford. It comes on foot of a major jobs announcement by Bausch and Lomb. Waterford is on the move as a centre for jobs and investment.

“I wish the team the very best with their expansion plans.”

James Bylund, senior vice-president at Repligen, added: “We are thrilled to continue the collaboration with the Irish Government and the IDA that was initiated by the Artesyn team. This build-out is an important step in expanding our capacity and establishing dual manufacturing sites for key single-use consumable products used in manufacture of biological drugs.

“With its LEED Silver designation, the facility is closely aligned with our commitment to responsible growth and sustainability.”

Dr Jonathan Downey, managing director at the Waterford facility, said: “Having delivered beyond our commitment in 2019 to bring new jobs to the region through our development of high-end manufacturing capabilities, we are energised and excited about our integration with Repligen and this next phase of growth.

“In addition to our expansion of Artesyn products, and the transfer of manufacturing of certain of Repligen’s current products to our Irish operations, we expect to be utilising the Irish sites to advance additional research, development and innovation programs.”

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